A head-on shot of the thruster firing at 50 kilowatts. NASA
Scientists have announced a breakthrough with an ion thruster that could one day take humans to Mars.
It’s called the X3 thruster, a type of ion propulsion known as a Hall thruster. This technology is alluring because it can theoretically achieve higher speeds than conventional chemical propulsion.
In a series of tests at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, researchers said they had now achieved a record power output for a Hall thruster, opening up new avenues of research.
"We have shown that X3 can operate at over 100 kW of power," Alec Gallimore, the project’s lead and the dean of engineering at the University of Michigan, told Space.com. "It generated 5.4 Newtons of thrust, which is the highest level of thrust achieved by any plasma thruster to date." (The previous record was 3.3 Newtons.)
Ion thrusters are alluring because they promise high thrust with little fuel input. With little propellant needed, they can theoretically operate for much longer than conventional thrusters, achieving much higher speeds.
We’ve tested out quite a few, too. The longest-running is on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is currently in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres and launched in 2007. However, that has a thrust of just 90 microNewtons (0.00009 Newtons). Hall thrusters offer a much higher thrust.