Spaceflight has been operating under largely the same technology since the 1960’s. Reaction engines used massive chemical output to create enough thrust to escape the Earth’s gravity. There have since been developments in Ion drives and other forms of propulsion.
This article will look at three new methods of spacecraft propulsion, that could help move us away from traditional or hard to access fuel sources.
A new composites in the form of ‘solar sails’ could potentially convert light into momentum, giving probes enough power to travel over a million miles an hour.
However, even for small probes, the overall size of the sail would need to be huge, while still being a very light weight to ensure optimum mass for travel. Current solar sails would need to be dozens of meters long on each side, some are even 150 feet long.
These sails would be propelled by radiation pressure, which is a type of energy transfer that results in momentum. Photons (the particles which make up light) have no mass, but they do still have momentum thanks to their movement. With each photon that collides with the sail, there is a transfer of a tiny amount of energy, resulting in the probe being carried along by the sails.
MaSMi (or magnetically shielded miniature) technology works by redirecting magnetic fields around vital systems to protect them from excess heat or radiation. It helps protect the internal components from plasma generated by the thruster, which would typically erode them after about 200,000 newton-seconds of impulse. Thanks to the magnetic shielding, newer systems can last ten times longer.
Electric startup Apollo Fusion has begun work on creating a thruster system that utilises this technology to create new thruster systems that might one day be applied to spacecraft, satellites, and deep-space probes.
A new design for a self-sustaining probe relies on steam power for its movement. Steam power is one of oldest power systems in history, far less reliable or explosive than modern methods of reaching space.
However, one of the key limitations on space exploration is the amount of fuel a system can hold. All systems are designed with long-term sustainability in mind, and ideally, with the ability to generate new fuel to extend its ability to explore.
This new concept works because water might actually be a relatively plentiful resource in space, meaning that the probe could find more water, refuel, and convert it to steam that would propel it further into space. Designed to never run out of propellant, the probe could in theory travel from asteroid to asteroid, finding water, converting it to fuel, and then moving on.
This new technology works thanks to an In Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) System, which captures water to be stored in a steam tank. It can then be heated up using power generated from the system’s solar battery. This technology was developed as part of NASA’s Small Business Technology Transfer initiative, showing that big ideas don’t always come from NASA itself.
The space exploration industry represents the cutting-edge of technology, and some of the greatest minds on the planet are working on innovative new solutions to the fuel problem.
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