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Thruster for Mars mission breaks records

The most powerful Hall thruster the world has ever seen showed its mettle at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

 

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An advanced space engine in the running to propel humans to Mars has broken the records for operating current, power and thrust for a device of its kind, known as a Hall thruster.

The development of the thruster was led by University of Michigan Aerospace Engineering Professor Alec D. Gallimore, who is also 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,” Dean 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 US 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).

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