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The old rocket technology that could one day bring people to Mars

On February 6, SpaceX made history as it launched its Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It now rules as the largest and most powerful rocket in the world. Elon Musk, the messianic CEO of the billionaire space-based start-up, plans to build an even bigger rocket that he promises will bring people to Mars.

Well, maybe.

The Falcon Heavy is a 230-foot technical marvel with the ability to move loads of up to 141,000 pounds into a near-earth orbit. Only the Saturn V, the rocket that Neil Armstrong and his company wore to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s, was bigger and meaner but long retired. Both rockets, however, rely on liquid fuel as propellant.

A one-way trip to Mars with conventional chemical rockets could take up to nine months. It is a long time for a human crew to spend in a spaceship exposed to radiation and other hazards. That's one of the reasons why NASA and other space agencies, as well as universities and the private sector, are pursuing different types of missile technologies.

The thrust of the plasma motor

The leading alternative for a trip to Mars is the electric drive. In 201

5, NASA commissioned three start-ups to develop solar electric propulsion systems (SEPs), each funded for three years as part of the Next-Space Technologies for Exploration Partnership program.

NextSTEP is just one of NASA's most recent long-term plans to build a space station orbiting the Moon to serve as a focal point for travel to the Red Planet. It's mostly science-fiction on behalf of Arthur C. Clarke at this point, but SEP systems are already a reality, though nothing is suggested near the scale.

The three companies under contract-Ad Astra Rocket Company from Webster, Texas, and Aerojet Rocketdyne and MSNW, both from Redmond, Wash., Are developing variations of ion or plasma thrusters.

Instead of emitting propellant gases in chemical rockets, ion thrusters use forces to move an object by ionizing inert gas such as xenon or hydrogen through an electric charge (usually made from solar or nuclear materials). This deprives the atoms of electrons and generates positively charged ions. The resulting gas consists of positive ions and negative electrons, ie plasma. Then, electrical and / or magnetic fields are used to direct the plasma to generate thrust.

Plasma is actually a certain fourth state of matter, while the others are three solids, liquids and gases. The brightest example of plasma is the center of our solar system, although it is abundant in nature and in human applications, from lightning to plasma televisions.

In fact, ion engines have been on satellites for years and even in some deep space missions. In 2015, for example, ion-powered NASA Dawn probe into orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, which sits in an asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Warp Speed ​​Ahead

While Ion Thruster lacks the impact of a Falcon Heavy missile in terms of the sudden acceleration required to free itself from Earth's gravity, the much smaller engines are all in one almost friction-free space, where they are at least 10 times more economical.

That means a spacecraft with ion engines can accelerate constantly, eventually reaching speeds much larger than conventional chemical engines. For example, the retired Space Shuttle could reach speeds of 18,000 miles per hour. An ion-propelled spaceship could theoretically cross the cosmos at more than 200,000 mph, according to NASA.

Former astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz, who heads Ad Astra, said he could create the cannonball in less than 40 minutes to Mars. In the 1980s he designed Ad Astras Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR).

More recently, the company proved that it can produce 100 kilowatts of power from the VASIMR engine over 100 non-consecutive hours. The next step is to fire the engine to create a plasma ball that is as hot as the sun and lasts for 100 hours. Aerojet Rocketdyne is also reportedly ready for the next 100-hour test phase of its Hall engine, another type of plasma-based engine. The best ion engines that can be used today are about 5 kW.

Meanwhile, MSNW is researching various prototype fusion rockets that would emit radio waves from the fusion of a mixture of hydrogen and helium isotopes that was heated by low-frequency heat. The process converts part of the mass of atoms into energy. A lot of energy

From the air

Not to be outdone, the European Space Agency has just tested another type of ion engines that can literally live in thin air. The air-breathing electric propulsion system draws in air molecules from the edge of a planet's atmosphere, largely replacing the need to carry a gas propellant such as xenon.

While the technology would not be useful for a long-range spacecraft, it would do so. Ideally, it would propel low-orbit satellites or planes around the Earth, or even other planets such as Mars, where they absorb gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere Could use fuel.

The engine was tested in a vacuum chamber in Italy Environment at an altitude of more than 300 miles

Against the Laws of Nature

An air-breathing electric propulsion system may seem banal against another type of spacecraft operating at this point only one theory remains: an electromagnetic propulsion system that uses no type of fuel.

The so-called EmDrive, which was theoretically developed by NASA scientists, generates thrust by the impingement of microwaves in a closed chamber. Theoretically, the engine could fly to Mars in about two months. That is, if it were not the annoying detail that it violates the laws of nature. In particular, the EmDrive goes against Isaac Newton's third law of classical mechanics, which states that there is an equal and opposite reaction for each action.

The debate over whether the EmDrive could turn out to be a ticket to humanity to Mars and beyond

Beyond This World

Another idea for a space machine that did not come from this world came from a start up from Colorado called Escape Dynamics, which proposed the use of microwave propulsion technology.

Design called to power the spacecraft's electromagnetic motor externally by radiating microwaves to the aircraft. The jet would help warm up on-board hydrogen fuel, which would then be ejected to generate thrust. An early prototype was promising, but the company had to close in 2015 when it could no longer raise additional R & D funding.

It Is Rocket Science

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic moon landing A man has made a great leap for humanity. To take the next step in the solar system will require a huge technological leap forward in rocket science. Today it seems unlikely that a human will enter Mars, but no doubt it seemed equally impossible for us to bring a man to the moon.

As a science fiction writer, Clarke said, "The only way to discover the world's limits is to go beyond them into the impossible."

Source: NASA

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