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On February 6, SpaceX made history by launching the Falcon rocket Heavy from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Today it is the largest and most powerful missile in the world. Ilon Mask, the world-famous CEO of the space company, plans to build a rocket even more, which will eventually bring people to Mars. Maybe. Falcon Heavy – 70-meter miracle of engineering – capable of transferring loads of up to 64 tons to low Earth orbit. Only the legendary “Saturn-5”, the rocket that sent Neil Armstrong to the Moon in the 60’s and 70’s, was bigger and thicker. But those times are long gone. However, both missiles rely on liquid fuel.
A trip to Mars at one end using conventional chemical rockets can take up to nine months. The human crew will have to spend a long time under the influence of radiation and other hazards. This is one of the reasons why NASA and other space agencies, as well as universities and the private sector, are trying to develop various other types of missile technology.
The leading alternative for a trip to Mars is considered to be electric traction. In 2015, NASA celebrated three startups for the development of solar power (SEP) systems, each of which received a three-year grant under the program of the agency Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships.
NextSTEP is just one cog in the long-term plan of NASA to create an orbital station near the Moon, which will serve as a transit point for trips to the Red Planet. Now this is practically a science fiction in the best traditions of Arthur Clark, but the SEP systems are already quite real, albeit not so large.
Three companies that received contracts – Ad Astra Rocket Company, Aerojet Rocketdyne and MSNW – develop various ion or plasma engines.
Instead of throwing out gases in the combustion process that produce cravings in chemical rockets, ion engines use force to move an object by ionizing an inert gas, such as xenon or hydrogen, with an electric charge. It knocks out electrons from atoms, creating positively charged ions. The result is a gas consisting of positive ions and negative electrons – in other words, a plasma. Electric and magnetic fields further help to direct the plasma in the right direction to ensure traction.
Plasma is a separate fourth state of matter, along with solid, liquid and gaseous. The most striking example of plasma is the center of our solar system, that is, the sun. However, in nature, and on Earth, the plasma is quite common: it’s lightning, and everyone knows the “plasma” of televisions.
Ion engines are also used for a long time on satellites and even in deep space. In 2015, for example, ion engines brought the NASA Dawn probe into the orbit of the dwarf planet Ceres, which is in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Ionic engines have one minus that Falcon missile does not have Heavy: they are unable to instantaneously accelerate to leave the gravity of the Earth. But they are much more effective in the airless space. A spacecraft with ionic engines can pick up speed constantly, thus achieving acceleration, inaccessible to traditional chemical engines. For example, space shuttles could pick up speed of 30,000 km / h. A space vehicle, driven by the force of ions, can theoretically cut space at speeds of over 340,000 km / h.
Former astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz, who runs Ad Astra, said that he could theoretically fire a device at Mars so that it would arrive on the planet in 40 days. The idea of the VASIMR rocket, developed in Ad Astra, came to him in the 1980s.
Not so long ago the company demonstrated that the VASIMR engine can produce 100 kilowatts of power for 100 continuous hours. The next step will be the activation of the engine to produce a plasma ball hot as the sun, and keeping it for 100 hours in a row. Aerojet Rocketdyne also announced its readiness for the next phase of a 100-hour test of the Hall motor, another type of plasma-based engine. The best, what modern ion engines are capable of, is 5 kW.
Meanwhile MSNW is exploring various prototypes of thermonuclear missiles that will be able to throw out the plasma produced by the synthesis of a mixture of hydrogen and helium isotopes heated by low-frequency radio waves. This process converts part of the mass of atoms into energy. A lot of energy.
In order not to lag behind, the European Space Agency is developing its ion engine, which can literally eat air. The air power plant sucks molecules to the brink of the planet’s atmosphere, largely eliminating the need to transfer gas fuels, such as xenon.
Although this technology may not be useful to a long-distance spacecraft, it will ideally feed satellites in low Earth orbit or even on other planets like Mars, where it is possible to suck in gases and turn them into fuel.
The installation was tested in a vacuum chamber in Italy, where the medium was simulated at an altitude of more than 500 kilometers.
An electric power plant that takes air and turns it into fuel may seem redundant in the face of another space engine, which is still theoretical: an electromagnetic propulsion system that does not use any fuel at all. This is the engine EmDrive, proposed by NASA scientists. It creates traction in the process of bouncing microwaves in a closed chamber. In theory, such an engine will be able to deliver a missile to Mars in two months. If not for the annoying fact that it violates the laws of nature. In particular, EmDrive violates the third law of the classical mechanics of Isaac Newton, which states that for every action there is equal opposition.
The question of whether EmDrive will become a ticket for people to Mars, has not yet found an unambiguous answer.
Another unusual idea, applicable to space engines, came from the Colorado startup Escape Dynamics. He suggested using microwave traction technology.
At the heart of the project is the external impact on the electromagnetic engine of the spacecraft in the form of microwaves. A microwave beam will promote heating of the onboard hydrogen fuel, which will then be ejected and produce traction. The early prototype proved to be very promising, but the company was forced to stop testing in 2015, when it did not raise enough funds to continue the development.
The next year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic landing on the moon, when one man made a giant leap for mankind. To take the next step in the solar system, it will take a giant technological leap forward in rocket science. Today, it may seem incredible that a person will get to Mars, but this, without a doubt, will happen.
As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “the only way to know the limits of the possible is to go beyond them to the impossible.”