An ion thruster fueled by space air instead of propellant is paving the way for longer space missions, including the highly anticipated one for Mars.
By 2020, the European Space Agency and Roscosmos are sending an exploration rover that will collect and analyze surface samples to determine evidence of life.
It will be carried by a Russian rocket from the Proton family, which is expected to travel for nine months in space before it reaches the Red Planet.
Throughout the entire mission, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is supporting communications between the rover and its control center in Turin, Italy.
Though ESA has yet to confirm if the air-breathing thruster will be used in the upcoming ExoMars Mission 2020, this new invention can contribute significantly by providing unlimited power to both the rocket and the orbiter.
Air-Fueled Thruster Test-Fired At ESA
On March 5, the space agency's team successfully test-fired the air-fueled thruster, which can use the carbon dioxide found in the atmosphere of Mars for power.
Through its revolutionary system, not only can it facilitate longer space flights, but it can also support satellites on low-earth orbit for years on end.
"This project began with a novel design to scoop up air molecules as propellant from the top of Earth's atmosphere at around 200 km altitude with a typical speed of 7.8 km/s," says Louis Walpot, an aerospace engineer at ESA in Paris, France.
A complete prototype was developed by the private space company SITAEL and then tested in a vacuum chamber in their facility in Italy, which mimics the environment at a 200-kilometer altitude.
Testing The Air-Breathing Intake And Thruster
To provide air molecules that will be absorbed by the Ram-Electric Propulsion intake, SITAEL's team used a device called particle flow generator.
Unlike complicated systems, the thruster operated in a simple and "passive" manner. Basically, it absorbs air that passes through the intake where they are assigned electrical charges and converted into usable ions.
The thruster was ignited multiple times using a nitrogen-oxygen mixture as fuel. When the thruster's blue plume changed to purple, the team declared the experiment a success.
An air-breathing thruster is no longer a theory but already a "working concept" that can provide unlimited power for an entirely "new class" of space missions.
ESA To Explore Exoplanets
ESA has not announced when the revolutionary thruster will be developed for official use. Meanwhile, the agency is preparing for its fourth medium-class mission that will be launched by 2028.
ARIEL, which stands for Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey, will examine the conditions of planets beyond the solar system to understand their geography and origin.
"Ariel is a logical next step in exoplanet science, allowing us to progress on key science questions regarding their formation and evolution, while also helping us to understand Earth's place in the Universe," says ESA Director of Science Günther Hasinger.
In particular, the mission will center on warm and hot planets, including super-Earths and gas giants that orbit close to their stellar parents. Their well-mixed atmospheres should allow easier investigation of their composition.
ARIEL was announced March 20 and also aims to maintain the European agency's competitive standing in the field of aeronautics.