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Publication Title | Plasmas from the Coalition for Plasma Science Plasma Propulsion for Space Flight

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about Plasmas from the Coalition for Plasma Science
Plasma Propulsion for Space Flight
We dream of going to the stars! As young children many of us have been awestruck by the possibility of space travel. Indeed, in the last 50 years we have witnessed the devel- opment of the first ships that could transport humans beyond Earth.
Yet we still lack the ships required to venture far into the vastness of space. With current technology, even a visit to one of our nearest planetary neighbors, Mars, would require a very long journey, in fragile and limited spacecraft. Travelers would encounter staggering diffi- culties, including more than six months of debilitating weightlessness and persistent radiation. If humans were to travel to Mars today, their bodies and minds would suffer considerably during the journey.
Many of these difficulties are due to the limitations of today’s chemical
rockets. Even after remarkable advances in the last 50 years, the fuel
consumption of those rockets is still so high that only a tiny fraction
of the ship manages to reach its final destination. Witness, for example, the gargantuan external fuel tank required to bring the space shuttle to an orbit only a few hundred miles up. A trip to the Moon requires a much greater amount of fuel, and a trip to Mars would require even more.
Plasma rockets, on the other hand, open up new and exciting possibilities for fast space transportation. Utilizing ionized particles accelerated by electric and magnetic fields, these engines expand the range of rocket propulsion far beyond the limits of the chemical rocket, with a fuel consumption very much lower. Many plasma rockets have been under devel- opment for years, even decades, and some are already in limited operation.
Plasma rockets, however, are dependent upon the availability of electric power, which is still limited in space, since electricity is generated mainly by solar arrays. Because of this, plasma rockets have evolved over time as low-power devices unsuitable for long-distance transportation and human space flight.
This picture is rapidly changing. Major advances in solar technology have increased the available electrical power, opening new and exciting possibilities for high-power plasma propulsion. In addition, renewed interest in nuclear power for space missions far from the Sun is creating a new niche for high-power plasma rockets.
The basic principle of rocket propulsion stems from Newton’s third law of motion, the so-called law of action and reaction. That principle applies to the motion of a garden hose as well as it does to the powerful engines of the space shuttle. A rocket propels itself by expelling material at high velocity in the opposite direction to its motion. The material is usually a gas, and heat from a chemical reaction generally imparts the velocity. The heat builds pressure in a combustion chamber and is converted to exhaust velocity by the action of a properly designed nozzle.
One can achieve the same thrust by either ejecting more material at low velocity or less material at high velocity. Clearly, since the material must be carried on board, the latter approach is preferred. In order to minimize the amount of material carried, one seeks to achieve the highest possible exhaust velocity. Exhaust velocities far beyond the reach of chemical rockets can be achieved by using plasma, in which atoms of the exhaust gases have been stripped of some of their electrons, making it a soup of charged particles.
A Mars mission as it might look in the future, driven by a plasma rocket and powered by nuclear reactors.
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