World’s First Rocket Thruster That Uses Air As Fuel

Posted: Mar 9 2018, 9:22am CST | by , Updated: Mar 9 2018, 9:27am CST , in Latest Science News


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World’s First Rocket Thruster That Uses Air as Fuel
Credit: ESA

Air-breathing electric thrusters could serve as a crucial component for future low orbit missions

The European Space Agency (ESA) has tested a rocket thruster that runs on air instead of fuel. The new thruster, named air-breathing electric thruster, pulls scarce air molecules from the top of the atmosphere and uses them as propellant, showing promise to fly spacecrafts in low Earth orbit for long periods of time.

ESA's GOCE gravity-mapper flew as low as 250 km for more than five years using a similar kind of electric thruster. However, the mission was cut short by 40 kg of xenon, which was being used as propellant and ran out. Replacing conventional propellant with atmospheric molecules would help eliminate this drawback.

“This project began with a novel design to scoop up air molecules as propellant from the top of Earth's atmosphere at around 200 km altitude with a typical speed of 7.8 km/s.” ESA's Louis Walpot said in a statement.

The complete thruster was tested in a vacuum chamber in Italy that simulates the environment at 200 km altitude and can already compete successfully with other type of thrusters. The thruster involves no valves or complex parts and works on a simple, passive design.

The biggest challenge, however, was to create a new kind of intake to collect and compress air molecules, which would otherwise bounce away. The molecules were then given electric charges so that they can be accelerated and ejected to provide thrust. The new thruster ensures better charging and acceleration of the incoming air, which is harder to achieve than in traditional electric propulsion designs.

"The team ran computer simulations on particle behavior to model all the different intake options but it all came down to this practical test to know if the combined intake and thruster would work together or not. Instead of simply measuring the resulting density at the collector to check the intake design, we decided to attach an electric thruster. In this way, we proved that we could indeed collect and compress the air molecules to a level where thruster ignition could take place, and measure the actual thrust” said Louis.

“This result means air-breathing electric propulsion is no longer simply a theory but a tangible, working concept, ready to be developed, to serve one day as the basis of a new class of missions."

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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