As you can probably guess, rocket science isn’t exactly a walk in the park, even for some of the planet’s brightest minds.
That’s why new concepts spend so much time in their theoretical stage before they’re actually put to use: any system for fueling a rocket must undergo rigorous troubleshooting before it’s considered a viable option. Such is the case with ion drive (or ion propulsion) which is finally entering the sphere of use.
From Theory to Practice
Most of the rockets that you’ve ever seen are something known as chemical rockets. They create fuel through a superheated chemical combination that produces thrust as a reaction of that combination. This technology has served agencies like NASA well, but it’s not the most efficient or high tech option for space travel.
Ion propulsion, on the other hand, uses charged ions to generate an electromagnetic field. The ion beam is then discharged, which creates thrust for the rocket. Theoretically, there’s no limit to how long this process can keep recycling, so long as there’s an electrical source and enough propellant to continue it.
While the idea of ion drives might not sound all that far-fetched now, it was basically viewed as science fiction when NASA scientists first concocted the concept in the 1950s. At that point, it was merely a theory that worked out on paper, and not something that received any concerted attention from the agency.
It wasn’t until the late 90s that scientists really threw their weight behind testing out this technology, and it’s been even more recent that ion propulsion was considered a viable method of moving space craft.
Moving Into The Future
NASA has made several successful attempts to utilize ion drives on various missions. Their “Dawn” mission sent an ion propulsion craft to investigate a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt in the early 21st century, giving unprecedented insight into two different targets.
After that pioneering mission, it became clear that ion drives were more than just a hypothetical fuel source. In 2018, a combined mission between Europe and Japan called BepiColombo sent crafts with ion drives to make the more than 5 billion mile trek to Mercury, a feat which will take around 7 years to complete.
The important thing to understand about ion drives is that they are not incredibly high powered in terms of force. In fact, gravity’s effect on a handful of quarters is about the same kind of force an ion thruster produces. However, that force builds over time, and without gravity acting upon the craft, they eventually sustain extremely high speeds.
All space agencies seem hopeful that as ion drive technology progresses, it may eventually allow for high speed, deep space exploration—perhaps even with humans on board. This would bring to life a long-held science fiction trope. In fictional worlds, ion drives solved many problems for space travel, and it appears that life may be imitating art yet again.
For as long as humans have existed, they’ve looked to the stars for insight about their place in the universe. As ion drives become a more viable technology, it appears that gleaning answers from outer space has never been more likely.