WOW-POW = World Of Wonderful POWer: July 2009

Friday, July 24, 2009

Ion engine could one day power 39-day trips to Mars

Traditional rockets burn chemical fuel to produce thrust. Most of that fuel is used up in the initial push off the Earth's surface, so the rockets tend to coast most of the time they're in space. Ion engines, on the other hand, accelerate electrically charged atoms, or ions, through an electric field, thereby pushing the spacecraft in the opposite direction. They provide much less thrust at a given moment than do chemical rockets, which means they can't break free of the Earth's gravity on their own. But once in space, they can give a continuous push for years, like a steady breeze at the back of a sailboat, accelerating gradually until they're moving faster than chemical rockets.