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NASA’s new ion thruster breaks records, could take humans to Mars

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In Brief The X3 thruster designed by the University of Michigan for NASA has broken records in recent tests.

Ionic Propulsion from NASA. NASA’s new X3 thruster, which is being developed by researchers at the University of Michigan in collaboration with the agency and the US Air Force, has broken records in recent test.

The X3 is a type of Hall thruster, a design that uses a stream of ions to propel a spacecraft.

Plasma is expelled to generate thrust, producing far greater speeds than are possible with chemical propulsion rockets, according to NASA. A chemical rocket tops out at around five kilometers per second, while a Hall thruster can reach speeds of up to 40 kilometers per second.

Project team leaders project that ion propulsion technology such as this could take humans to the Red Planet within the next 20 years. Recent tests demonstrated that the X3 thruster can operate at over 100kW of power, generating 5.4 Newtons of thrust – the highest of any ionic plasma thruster to date.

A shielding system is also being developed that would prevent plasma from damaging the walls of the thruster, allowing it to operate for even longer, perhaps even several years at a time.


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