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China’s New Space Station Is Powered by Ion Thrusters

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

The country is betting big on electric spacecraft propulsion.

China’s first module of its upcoming Tiangong space station makes use of ion drives, technology that could vastly cut down the time it takes to travel to Mars — and greatly reduce the amount of fuel needed to make that trip, as the South China Morning Post reports.

The module, called Tianhe and launched in late April, is powered by four ion thrusters that use electricity to accelerate ions as a form of propulsion. In fact, the module could soon become the first spacecraft in history to transport humans using the technology, according to SCMP.

Ion drives are orders of magnitude more efficient compared to chemical propulsion. To keep the International Space Station in orbit for a year, the thrusters consume four tons of rocket fuel. With ion thrusters, it’d need just 400 kilograms to stay in orbit for the same amount of time, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

A trip to Mars could be cut down from eight months to just 39 days.

China is betting big on ion thrusters, hoping to use them not just for its space station but for upcoming satellite constellations and nuclear-powered spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to Mars as well, according to SCMP.

The technology has been around for decades, but mainstream adoption has been hampered by the fact that the thrust produced isn’t very significant. Scaling up the thrusters could end up putting astronauts in danger and shorten the lifespan of satellites.

But scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences may have cracked the code. One of its ion drives currently in development has been burning for more than 11 months straight, according to the newspaper.

A magnetic field makes sure the particles don’t create any damage or erode the engine, while a special ceramic material stops it from getting damaged by radiation.

“Space projects are usually very big,” an anonymous Beijing-based space scientist told SCMP. “A typical mission involves hundreds or even thousands of individuals. But the competition in space is essentially a competition over some very small but extremely important details.”

“The ion thruster is one of those areas where the devil is in the detail,” the scientist added.

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