While chemical burn rockets are the industry standard for launching spacecraft beyond Earth’s atmosphere, the bigger question concerns how we should tackle thrust after the spacecraft reaches outer space. This is especially important considering how interest in long-term space missions continues to grow.
Ion-powered rockets potentially offer a tangible solution. This form of thrust accelerates charged atoms through a magnetic field and then out the back of the spacecraft. It produces less thrust than a chemical burn rocket, but it uses little fuel in the process and lasts much longer than a chemical burn.
Because this propulsion method doesn’t require as much fuel, it can theoretically go much farther than a chemical burn rocket. Furthermore, the lack of friction in space would result in thrust multiplication over time.
The ion-powered rocket concept has been around for decades, but it wasn’t until recently that engineers worked out some of the quirks that made them infeasible. With additional research and development, perhaps engineers will devise the perfect setup that could one day take humans to Mars.