Bibek Paudel brings us a BBC report on the development and testing of an new ion engine by a security firm named Qinetiq. The engine will be used in an ESA spacecraft tasked with mapping the Earth's gravitational field from orbit. Only a handful of ion drives have been used for space missions before, some of which we have discussed. Quoting: "Cryogenic pumps can be heard in the background, whistling away like tiny steam engines. Using helium gas as a coolant, they can bring down the temperature in the vacuum chamber to an incredibly chilly 20 Kelvin (-253C). The pressure, meanwhile, can drop to a millionth of an atmosphere. Ion engines ... make use of the fact that a current flowing across a magnetic field creates an electric field directed sideways to the current. This is used to accelerate a beam of ions (charged atoms) of xenon away from the spacecraft, thereby providing thrust."
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