UM Hall Thruster Breaks Records

A Hall thruster under development at the University of Michigan has broken the records for operating current, power and thrust for a device of its kind.


(Scott Hall makes some final adjustments)

The development of the thruster was led by Alec Gallimore, University of Michigan professor of aerospace engineering and the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering.

Hall thrusters offer exceptionally efficient plasma-based spacecraft propulsion by accelerating small amounts of propellant very quickly using electric and magnetic fields. They can achieve top speeds with a tiny fraction of the fuel required in a chemical rocket.

"Mars missions are just on the horizon, and we already know that Hall thrusters work well in space," Gallimore said. "They can be optimized either for carrying equipment with minimal energy and propellant over the course of a year or so, or for speed—carrying the crew to Mars much more quickly."

The challenge is to make them larger and more powerful. The X3, a Hall thruster designed by researchers at U-M, NASA and the U.S. Air Force, shattered the previous thrust record set by a Hall thruster, coming in at 5.4 newtons of force compared with 3.3 newtons. The improvement in thrust is especially important for crewed mission—it means faster acceleration and shorter travel times. The X3 also more than doubled the operating current record (250 amperes vs. 112 amperes) and ran at a slightly higher power (102 kilowatts vs. 98 kilowatts).


(A side shot of the X3 firing at 50 kilowatts)

As far as I know, The ion drive was first described in science fiction in 1947 by Jack Williamson in a short story published in Astounding Science Fiction called "The Equalizer." In the story, the spacecraft achieves a significant fraction of the speed of light, returning decades later due to time dilation, using an ion thruster.

Star Wars fans also know about ion drives, even if they don't realize it. The old Empire uses T.I.E. Fighters; Darth Vader had a special one for his own use. T.I.E. is an acronym for Twin Ion Engines:

Via University of Michigan press release. This technology has been under development for a while; see my earlier story SMART-1's Ion Drive Not Science Fiction (2004) also seen on Space.com as SMART-1's Ion Drive: From Fiction to Fact.

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