Starlog #12: “Change is the essential process of all existence.” -Spock
Where do you think ion propulsion and future engine technology will take us? What are the dangers? Are there other applications?
Straight into answering all 3 questions with one use of ion propulsion we already know to exist and being used; Space X’s Starlink satellites.
They’re little ion thrusters created for the purpose of maneuvering and as a propulsion. They have 1000+ Starlinks flying in orbit making them the first and best company to obtain the most “operational” information and data on ion propulsion out of any company; even NASA.
Ion thrusters are designed to provide continuous operation for weeks, even years. Depending on the design but NASA has proved with their NSTAR a life-time of 3,5 years. The NEXT Project; 5,5 years. Knowing the time we need to travel to Mars and beyond I do see significant use for the ion thrusters on longer missions in space, more so deep-space. Even planetary operational missions on Mars; fly-by’s, surveying drones, flying detectors/instruments, small corrections of stage 1 boosters to get back into Earth’s atmosphere, fueling connecting Starships and so on.
For the nearest future; read into Lunar Gateway as they will be using PPE (Power and Propulsion Element) to generate electricity for the ion thrusters.
I should also add that most Ion thrusters use Xenon but Starlink used Krypton.
Using ion propulsion is a lot safer than chemical propulsion. Modern application of ion use inert gases, there is no risk of a terrible explosion. If you were to put your “gloved” hand, as we are operating in a vacuum, it wouldn’t damage your hand (temperature-wise). You could feel a soft breeze.
It is not reactive nor radio-active which makes it safe but it does have FAST ions and lots of them. And that’s the dangerous part. These fast moving ions could create erosion, it could technically erode through an aluminum plate in less then 15 minutes.
I believe it is going to be a very big part of our space travels and future space exploring!
That’s it for Week 7 of the course and onto my next rank of Captain