How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 883

Would it be possible for a spacecraft to use electrically powered propulsion? Could it gather atoms and molecules from space and then use an electromagnetic field to push them through a nozzle? — JC, Burnaby, British Columbia
Not only is it possible to use electrically powered propulsion, such systems are already in use on several spacecraft. While they don't scavenge atoms and molecules from space, these ion propulsion engines uses electric forces to accelerate ionized atoms to enormous speeds. As the engine pushes on the ions it accelerates, those ions push back on the engine. The ions rush out into space in one direction and the engine experiences a modest thrust in the opposite direction. While the overall thrust from an ion engine is small, it uses its stored-atom "fuel" very efficiently and can be sustained for a very long time in a solar- or nuclear-powered satellite. Ion engines are used in spacecraft that need small but steady thrust for a long time. Scavenging atoms from space would allow these engines to run for an even longer time, but it's probably not realistic. The atoms in space are typically so rare and so fast-moving that they would be more trouble than they're worth.

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