Astrophysics (Index)About

ion engine

(ion thruster)
(type of electrical spacecraft engine)

An ion engine (or ion thruster) is a type of spacecraft engine that runs on electricity (a type of electric thruster). Advantages of ion engines over rocket engines (i.e., powered by burning the propellant) include efficient use of propellant and ability to run continuously, while disadvantages include inability to power a launch from the ground and the need to carry along a source of power. Ion engines are a viable option while the spacecraft is in space, and depending upon the circumstances, their efficiencies can win out. To date, ion engines have been small scale, with only the power of very small rocket engines.

Ion engines run on electric power, such as from solar panels or an atomic reactor and are considered a means to make use of either of these for active space flight. A propellant is also needed (and is eventually used up), but rather than using a burnable substance (as is the fuel/propellant of ordinary rockets), it must be a substance (such as xenon) that can be ionized by the engine. Electricity is used to ionize the propellant and also is used to create electromagnetic forces to thrust the propellant backward from the engine, accelerating the spacecraft according to the physical law "every action has a reaction". The propellant must be thrust at considerable speed and the faster the thrust, the less propellant is needed to accomplish a particular amount of acceleration, and ion engines have the advantage of propelling it faster than do rocket engines. Though this is efficient use of the propellant, the resulting thrust is small compared to the capability of rocket engines, but can be maintained for long flights, something impractical for typical rocket engines.

Some spacecraft have used ion engines merely for turning, maneuvering, and stationkeeping, but now some have used them for traveling long distances, such as between planets. Their low power (so far) has limited them to slow-but-efficient routes, using gravity assist. Missions that have incorporated it:

Likely, all current electric thruster concepts use ions, but the term ion engine is used more specifically, for those that ionize a gas, accelerate it and direct it backward after allowing it to recombine with its missing electrons.

Regarding the possibility launching from the ground, current ion engines produce far too little thrust to counteract their Earth weigh (it wouldn't budge) or atmospheric drag, and the presence of air doesn't allow them to create a sufficient electric field. The thrust deficit is so great that such launches won't happen in the foreseeable future. For travel within space, an ion engine's ability to run continuously makes up for the miniscule thrust: once in orbit, it isn't pinned to the ground and can accelerate and any acceleration maintained long enough is sufficient. However, ion engines designed to use (thin) atmosphere for propellant are in development, e.g., for stationkeeping of satellites at the lowest-altitude orbits.


(space,equipment)
Further reading:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ion_thruster
https://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/about/fs21grc.html
https://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/technology/Ion_Propulsion1.html

Referenced by pages:
BepiColombo
CAESAR
Deep Space 1 (DS1)
SMART-1

Index