One of the biggest challenges of space travel is the immense fuel cost of traveling even to our own planet's satellite, let alone one of our neighboring planets. But what if you could build a lightweight space craft that could get around the solar system on barely any fuel? A special motor, and a special kind of fuel, can get to the Moon on a tenth of a liter. And this could transform both space exploration and satellite navigation.
The famous quote by John Glenn, when asked what he thought as he was about to blast off into space, goes: "I looked around me and suddenly realized that I was sitting on a million tons of fuel, in a rocket that had been built by the lowest bidder." The "lowest bidder" part will always be the same, I suspect — but lightweight spacecraft might be changing the rules when it comes to the amount of fuel needed.
A new 'mini' motor may help future spacecraft and satellites keep their fuel weight down. It's been developed at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and is powered by an 'ionic liquid.' The simplest ionic liquid would probably be liquid salt. Ions are atoms that have either lost or gained an extra electron or two, so that they have a slight positive or negative charge. When salt dissolves, its sodium atom gets a positive charge and its chlorine atom acquires a negative charge. The ionic motor, which works with a different ionic liquid, will grab the ions out of the liquid and eject them from the craft through an array of nozzles, powering and steering the satellite.
This will work only on lightweight stuff, but there are prototypes being made. EPFL is making a satellite that will clean up the many defunct satellites and other space debris already in Earth's orbit. Another will jet over to the far side of the Moon and record radio transmissions. Hopefully, we face a less combustible future in space.
Top Image: NASA