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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1997 > Oct > Oct 26

NASA Ion Engine Ready To Make Sci-Fi Reality

From: Stig_Agermose@online.pol.dk (Stig Agermose)
Date: Sun, 26 Oct 1997 03:34:30 +0200
Fwd Date: Sun, 26 Oct 1997 16:59:18 -0500
Subject: NASA Ion Engine Ready To Make Sci-Fi Reality

Found at:



Solar Electric Propulsion Ready for Deep Space
Ion Engine Making Sci-Fi Reality


E-mail ABCNEWS.com

For space science, we can take advantage of the lower cost and the
advanced technology to get the same information [that NASA's getting

Jack Stocky, NASA

DS1 spacecraft marks the first time ion propulsion, rather than
chemical propulsion, will be used. (NASA)

By Joe Feese


In an early episode of Star Trek called "Spock's Brain," evil aliens
take First Officer Spock's brain and speed off in an ion-powered
spacecraft. The Enterprise crew is devastated - how can they possibly
catch an ion-propelled spaceship?

Fret no more, Captain Kirk and fellow shipmates: Space technology has
nearly caught up to science fiction.

A futuristic form of spacecraft propulsion called ion engine propulsion
is one step closer to becoming a reality.

The ionic thruster (NASA)  Deep Space 1 (DS1), the first launch of
NASA's New Millennium program, will use ion propulsion (also known as
solar electric propulsion) to power the craft on a deep-space mission
next summer. This will mark the first time in the history of space
exploration that ion propulsion, rather than chemical propulsion, is
being used as the primary means of propelling a spacecraft.

On Sept. 25, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., completed
the most extensive test of an ion engine ever performed. Begun on June
17, 1996, the 8,000-hour endurance test of a prototype xenon ion engine
verified that the engine has what it takes for long missions. DS1 is
now set to launch on July 1, 1998. During its two-year test mission,
the spacecraft will fly by Mars, an asteroid, and a comet, serving as a
spaceborne test bed to validate new technologies.

Little Engine That Could

DS1's xenon ion engine, which fires electrically charged atoms from its
thrusters, is just 11.8 inches in diameter and is powered by more than
2,000 watts from large solar arrays, which focus, collect and store
solar energy. Using xenon, a heavy inert gas, for fuel, the engine
ionizes (gives an electrical charge to) the gas and electrically
accelerates it to a speed of about 18.6 miles per second (about 70,000
miles per hour). When the xenon ions are emitted at such a high speed,
they then push the spacecraft in the opposite direction. The converted
xenon appears as a ghostly blue haze that trails from the back of the
spacecraft as it catapults through space.

Perhaps the strangest thing about ion propulsion is that it provides
about the same amount of thrust as the pressure of a single sheet of
paper held in the palm of the hand. So how does that power a
spacecraft? As more and more ions are emitted, this low thrust
gradually changes the craft's velocity from low to high speed.

Since the cumulative mass of the positively charged ions fired out of
the thruster doesn't weigh much, the spacecraft moves only millimeters
per second in its early stages of flight. But as the energy produced
accumulates, the speed can eventually build up to 70,200 miles per
hour, compared to just 10,400 miles per hour for the fastest chemical
propulsion engines with the same vehicle launcher and amount of

Staying Power

In addition, the ion propulsion engine is so efficient that it can
operate on a small amount of propellant for months - considerably
smaller, and thus lighter, than the amount of propellant on board a
chemically propelled spacecraft. This makes ion propulsion ideal for
long missions. And since the ion-propelled spacecraft are lighter, they
can launch from smaller, cheaper launch vehicles.

"For space science, we can take advantage of the lower cost and the
advanced technology to get the same information [that NASA's getting
now]," explains Jack Stocky, manager of the NASA Solar Electric
Propulsion Technology Application Readiness program. "That allows us to
do more missions and makes the program more exciting and more
interesting to the public." These factors contribute not only to
tremendous savings for NASA but also greater public support for space
exploration, making ion propulsion the likely choice for tomorrow's
most distant missions.

Copyright 1997 ABCNews and Starwave Corporation. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or
redistributed in any form.

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