This new "electric propulsion system" enables long distance space travel by harnessing the power of the sun to charge its ion engines. This sci-fi looking ship is being developed by the European Space Program to map out the gravity of Earth, but the hype right now is all about it's potential for true space travel without the need of fossil fuels. I found this at work this morning, and I couldn't help but have a huge grin on my face. The ion engine will be tested first with the GOCE spacecraft, seen on the left.
30 years in the making, the new ion engine may just open up the doors to the frontier of space travel, making manned missions to distant worlds a reality for the next few generations (Perhaps even our own, if you're thinking Mars).
The technology is complicated, yet elegant. The BBC article explains,
Imagine the vastness between the planets, where worlds are but dots in the distance. The only thing you can see is the exhaust from ion engines- pale blue streams dispelling into the darkness, like comet tails. With a closer look, you can see fleets of ships powered by ion engines, traveling to a new colony on Mars, or even Titan or Europa."These are the xenon pumps and these are cooled down by the helium compressors to approximately 20 degrees Kelvin," he explains.
"So any gas atoms that strike those panels, they freeze. After you've been running the engines for a number of hours you can see a frost - it looks like snow - which is actually frozen air and xenon."
During testing, the engine fires ions towards the opposite end of the chamber, which has a protective coating of graphite.
"The ions are travelling very fast, at approximately 50km a second," he says.
"When they strike the other end of the chamber, they actually knock atoms off the surfaces they strike; it's analogous to sand-blasting on an atomic level."
If humanity survives this century, we may see such sights more commonly.