One of the major constraints for a round trip to Mars and back is availability of fuel once we are on Mars for the return journey. To cater to this problem, researchers at University of Sydney have come up with an innovative engine that can effectively do away with the requirement of refuelling in space.
An announcement was made in this regards at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico. According to details revealed, Neumann Space, the company set up by Dr Patrick Neumann after the completion of his PhD, is developing the rocket engine with a unique thruster technology. According to results, the pricing of space travel using this new technology would be competitive with other ion drives currently on the market as it is being built from current, commercially available components and does not require expensive alloys or finely constructed fuel tanks.
“We also believe that our system can solve many issues in space propulsion, allowing small space vehicles to do more with less”, Dr. Neumann says.
Researchers have been able to demonstrate through laboratory tests that their technology is capable of more than 11000 seconds of specific impulse and if this is achieved in commercial products, with this level of efficiency, it is possible to send missions to Mars, have them perform experiments in Mars orbit, and then bring the spacecraft back to Earth orbit without needing to refuel the spacecraft.
So what is this rocket engine technology. The thruster works by accelerating ions from an intensely hot, very small plasma ball. A magnetic nozzle that further accelerates the ions to give them extremely high velocity. Researchers have been able to not only demonstrate proof-of-concept record efficiencies, but also suggested that magnesium, used commonly as a light and strong alloy for space materials and prevalent in space junk orbiting the Earth, could be re-used to fuel the engine in space.
Airbus Defence & Space have signed a contract with Neumann Space to fly Dr Neumann’s payload for long-term testing on the International Space Station. For the thruster to be tested on International Space Station, it needs to be prepared through established processes to qualify a payload for flight to the ISS and for its operation on-board the ISS and this requirement will be fulfilled by Airbus Defence & Space.
Researchers are confident that they will be able to operate the Neumann propulsion system on-board the ISS; however, the final confirmation will be given by Airbus Defence and Space partners ESA and NASA.
The new paper about the unique thruster technology, co-authored by Professors Marcela Bilek and David McKenzie is published in the American Institute of Physics’ Applied Physics Letters.