So, big news in the space exploration scene in the last week or so. The Ad Astra Rocket Company of Houston, Texas has announced that it has successfully tested VASIMR, a new engine that utilizes ion propulsion.
Why is that such a big deal? Well, here's a phrase for you: manned mission to Mars. Below you'll find a sciencey explanation of what ion propulsion is.
Ion propulsion is a technology that involves ionizing a gas to propel a craft. Instead of a spacecraft being propelled with standard chemicals, the gas xenon (which is like neon or helium, but heavier) is given an electrical charge, or ionized. It is then electrically accelerated to a speed of about 30 km/second. When xenon ions are emitted at such high speed as exhaust from a spacecraft, they push the spacecraft in the opposite direction.
See with our conventional rockets, the trip to Mars would take so long that we could only attempt it when Earth and Mars are closest together, which happens every two years. so, yeah, the astronauts would travel there (which would take about six months), get out and do their thing (which based on moon missions would involve driving a bitching set of wheels, stuffing rocks in their pockets, and playing golf), and then wait a year for the orbit to get close enough for them to attempt a return trip. One. Year.
But, with ion propulsion, the trip would get cut down to just 39 days, meaning that they could make the trip pretty much any time in Mars' orbit. So, yeah, it's a big deal for space-type people. Here's what Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield had to say to CTV:
If you can cut that voyage down to just a matter of seven or eight weeks then of course you can carry way less stuff. And if you don't have to carry so much fuel to slow down when you get there or to bring you back, it just scopes the whole thing down to where it becomes maybe a practical problem to solve rather than an almost an impossibility.
On the national pride side, a Halifax company makes the power generators for the engine, which is pretty cool. While the engine's been successfully ground tested, it hasn't been tested in space, so that's one hurdle. The other is that NASA has yet to come up with an effective suit for astronauts to wear on Mars that can handle its punishing conditions (a -60 degree average temperature, for instance).
Some might complain that we have more pressing problems here on Earth that take priority, such as homelessness and poverty and crime and education and health care. To which I respond, it's fucking Mars, lighten up. Seriously, humanity has always been on a timeline of exploration ever since a caveman left his cave, looked over the hill and thought, "I wonder if I go over there I'll find someone who'll bang me? Because I'm getting no love from these Cro-Magnon chicks."
My bet? They'll be setting off for Mars by 2019, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing.