(Submitted September 27, 1998)
I was rather interested in the new type of propulsion mentioned on
television. Please e-mail me about the subject.
Thank you for writing to "Ask an Astrophysicist." It is great that you are
interested in astronomy and in space travel; the technology you are
probably referring to is an "ion thruster." From a web page on a
course in Plasma and Electric Thrusters given at the University of
Wisconsin comes this definition of Electrostatic or Ion Thrusters:
This class has a single member, the ion thruster. Its key principle is
that a voltage difference between two conductors sets up an electrostatic
potential difference that can accelerate ions to produce thrust. The ions
must, of course, be neutralized--often by electrons emitted from a hot
filament. The three main stages of an ion-thruster design are ion
production, acceleration, and neutralization.
This page appears to have disappeared.)
An ion thruster is being used by Deep Space 1, which uses solar panels as
a source of energy to build up the necessary electrostatic potential to
accelerate the ions:
They are also used for some new commercial communications satellites
(Hughes offers this option) for altitude and station keeping.
J. Allie Hajian
for the "Ask an Astrophysicist" Team
Questions on this topic are no longer responded to by the "Ask an Astrophysicist" service. See http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/ask_astro/ask_an_astronomer.html
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