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It’s Ions To Mars

When ion thrusters were first imagined in the 1960’s, they were little more than a pipedream curiosity.

Now, NASA has logged over 43,000 continuous hours with their current model of the futuristic propulsion system.

This is a new world record, and a sign that NASA is headed in the right direction.

Ion propulsion differs from traditional chemical thrusters in that it doesn’t burn fuel. Instead, the thruster’s energy comes from solar panels or a nuclear-powered system.

In the case of the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) ion engine, xenon molecules are ionized and then accelerated electrostatically using a cathode. The molecules shooting out of the engine create thrust to propel the spacecraft.

Ion Thrusters are 10 times more efficient than chemical propulsion systems, and can run longer.

Whereas chemical engines can only burn for a few minutes, Ion engines can run for thousands of hours, which helps with the tiny thrust bursts that are needed to build up speed. Chemical thrusters were never a viable option for deep space missions, but ion propulsion represents our best chance yet to explore space systems beyond our own.

The NEXT thruster is NASA’s newest generation of ion propulsion systems, and is twice as effective as their last generation. Its design is simpler, lighter, and was created for high endurance. The 43,000 hours of testing represents approximately 5 years of spaceflight, and consumed only 1,697.5 lbs of xenon, which is incredible by any standard.

NASA hopes that the next generation of spaceships will use ion propulsion systems to take the first humans to Mars.

Rather than the current estimated travel time of one year and longer, ion engines could reach the Red Planet in just over a month. Since the engines are also smaller, the ship could carry a larger payload and plenty of fuel for a return trip to Earth.

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