It’s on the to-do list of space agencies and major commercial space companies to try and put mankind on Mars sometime in the next few decades, but there remains a crisis that needs to be solved first: where will we get the energy to propel a loaded spacecraft to the red planet?
As we know, we sent mankind to the moon with chemical reaction rockets, and still, those remain the modern form of transportation in space, but they are expensive to keep fueled and they only last so long before the fuel runs out.
Because Mars is about a year away from the Earth, and because we need to be able to send a whole lot of supplies to Mars with any astronauts we send so they can survive the journey and set up habitation on the red planet, we need something that is efficient, and yet powerful and enduring enough to keep a spacecraft on course for its target.
Image Credit: NASA
One possible solution could be electric plasma rockets, which can take over to get the spacecraft to the red planet once a chemical reaction rocket gets the spacecraft out of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Although they're incredibly more efficient at generating thrust, they come with a side-effect that isn't so much. The concept describes a process where particles from the reaction in the electric plasma rocket are slammed against the walls of the rocket engine itself and eventually break it down.
On the other hand, through processes known as ballistic redeposition and plasma redeposition, those walls could actually rebuild themselves as they are deteriorated by the reaction.
"This is similar to how a baseball tossed straight up into the air turns around and drops back to your hand. With the baseball, gravity stops the ball from going up any higher and pulls it back down to the ground. In a thruster, it’s the electric force between the negatively charged wall and the wall particle itself," Gary Li explains on The Conversation.
"It comes off neutrally charged, but can lose its electron in the plasma, becoming positively charged. The result is that the particle is pulled back toward the wall, in a phenomenon known as plasma redeposition. This process can be controlled by changing the density and temperature of the plasma."
Current testing of this kind of technology has reportedly aided in discovering new materials that are capable of reducing damage from these electric plasma thrusters by up to 50%. Of course, addition research in the future may help us to learn of better materials that are even more resistant to these kinds of degradation and may last through the future missions we seek to take.
Currently, the technology is in very early stages, but if a feasible solution can be discovered to slow down this degradation process long enough to last us as many as 10 trips between Earth and Mars, electric plasma rockets could become a reliable way to get us to Mars and back on a budget with all of our necessary supplies.
Although the concept behind electric plasma rockets isn’t necessarily new, the latest research dives deeply into finding a solution to the aspect of inevitable rocket chamber degradation. If it can be slowed down as much as humanly possible, we might just have the future of space travel at our fingertips.
Li gives a speech in the following video:
Source: The Conversation