Electrodeless plasma thrusters could pave the way for interstellar travel

If we are ever to travel through interstellar space, engines using electrodeless plasma thrusters could be the key.

If we want to explore the solar system in the coming decades, we need better technologies. By this I mean, mainly, the propulsion systems. The material we currently have is not enough if we want to go beyond Mars. With the current state of technology, it takes several months to travel to the red planet. And that makes solar system exploration a tough task ahead. And by that, I mean exploring it with manned crews. Fortunately, scientists are already coming up with innovative ways to help us travel to the “stars”. Imagine a technology that, instead of taking you to Mars in months, can get you there in weeks or even days. Even though it sounds like science fiction,

High power electrodeless plasma thruster

According to recent reports from Tohoku University, a researcher has improved a high-power electrodeless plasma thruster. This paves the way for deep space exploration. Spacecraft use electric propulsion to propel themselves by accelerating their propellers using electromagnetic fields. The use of electric propulsion devices, such as cross-linked ion thrusters and Hall thrusters, has already been successfully demonstrated on several space missions. The propellant, or plasma, is ionized by solar energy. It is then accelerated by electromagnetic fields to generate thrust energy. Due to their high power level, these devices have a limited lifetime, as the electrodes are exposed to the plasma and become damaged. Scientists therefore sought an alternative. They ended up saying to themselves: why not get rid of the electrodes? This is the “ta-daaa” moment.

Electrodeless plasma thrusters

To solve this problem, scientists have developed electrodeless plasma thrusters. In one example, radio frequency (rf) is used to generate plasma. To create thrust, radio waves are directed into a cylindrical chamber. There they are converted into plasma by a magnetic nozzle. The use of these rf MN plasma thrusters, also known as helical thrusters, has several advantages, such as their simplicity, ease of use, and potentially high power-to-thrust ratio. Despite this, the efficiency with which radio frequency power is converted into thrust energy has hindered its development. A modest 20% conversion rate has been achieved in more recent studies after early experiments generated single-digit conversion rates.

A yield of 30

Professor Kazunori Takahashi of Tohoku University’s Department of Electrical Engineering reported 30% efficiency in a recent study published in Scientific Reports. Although mature electric propulsion devices typically require xenon gas, which is difficult to find in sufficient quantities, today’s 30% efficiency could be achieved using argon propellant gas. Therefore, an MN rf plasma thruster could save earth resources and reduce its cost. With this breakthrough, high-powered space transportation technology is set to become more efficient and widely available.

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