It’s said that a radical ion engine known as the Neumann Drive could one day go to Mars and back on a single tank of fuel.
Now, the technology which has demonstrated efficiency surpassing that of even Nasa’s top efforts is set to undergo testing on the International Space Station.
The payload is expected to launch min 2018 and will operate in space for up to a year, allowing researchers to evaluate the system under real conditions.
Neumann Space has signed a contract with Airbus Defence & Space to bring their record-shattering technology to the ISS.
This ion space drive was developed by Paddy Neumann, formerly a PhD student at the University of Sydney, and can achieve more than 11,000 seconds of specific impulse.
This is a measure of thruster efficiency, and far exceeds that achieved by Nasa’s High Power Electric Propulsion (HiPEP) system, which allows for about 9,600 seconds of impulse.
A paper on the Neumann Drive technology, co-authored by University of Sydney professors Marcela Bilek and David McKenzie, was published recently in to Applied Physics Letters.
And according to the researchers, the upcoming tests will put humanity a step closer to enabling return journeys to Mars without refuelling.
Ion thrusters, in essence, work by hurling particles backwards so that a spacecraft can be propelled forwards
The Neumann ion drive bombards the fuel source with electric arcs, which causes ions to be discarded.
These ions then move through a magnetic nozzle, resulting in forward propulsion.
And while HiPEP system runs on xenon gas, Neumann's ion drive can instead run on various metals – many of which can be found in space junk.
This could drastically reduce the cost and energy needed to support these systems. Our modelling suggests that our pricing would be competitive with other ion drives currently on the market, as our system can be built from current, commercially available components and does not require expensive alloys or finely constructed fuel tanks,’ Dr Neumann said.
‘We also believe that our system can solve many issues in space propulsion, allowing small space vehicles to do more with less.’
According to Neumann Space, this type of technology wouldn’t be used to launch a spacecraft.
Instead, its fuel efficiency can be used to optimize the efforts of long-term missions, including the maintenance of satellites in orbit over many years, or to transport probes to far places, like asteroids.
This could also be used to send equipment and supplies to space before a manned mission.
David McKenzie, Professor of Materials Physics, says that with the capabilities so far seen in the lab tests, ‘it is possible to send missions to Mars, have performed experiments in Mars orbit, and then bring the spacecraft back to Earth orbit without needing to refuel the spacecraft.’