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Space Science Technology

New Engine Raises Possibility of Cheap Travel To the Moon 100

shreshtha writes with this intriguing bit from The Daily Mail: "A tiny satellite thruster which can journey to the Moon on just a tenth of a litre of fuel could usher in a new low-cost space age, its creators hope. The mini-motor weights just a few hundred grams and runs on an ionic chemical compound, using electricity to expel ions and generate thrust. The tiny motor isn't built to blast satellites into orbit — instead, it's to help spacecraft manouevre once they're in space, which previously required bulky, expensive engines."
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New Engine Raises Possibility of Cheap Travel To the Moon

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  • Sweet! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Lije Baley ( 88936 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:11PM (#39535449)

    To whom shall I write the check as I securely invest my life savings?

    • Re:Sweet! (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:27PM (#39535571)

      No joke, especially considering this is from the Daily Mail. I mean come on, why would they even think anyone would get real news from such a place.

      • by EdZ ( 755139 )
        Well, it is the Daily Fail. It may have taken them over a century to report on the concept of the Ion Thruster, but at least a few of the facts in their story are actually correct (which is probably a new record for them).
    • by khasim ( 1285 ) <> on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:30PM (#39535587) []

      It's a great site which details (with lots of math) the various problems with space travel.

      • Great stuff, thanks. Turns out I had it bookmarked from two years ago and had forgotten about it. Some of the engine designs are amazing, and the commentary is definitely worth reading.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        The problem with space travel has always been the depth of the gravitational well, the immense size and cost of life support for us big meat robots. Space travel to the moon was just John F. Kennedy's way of developing rocket that could put a nuclear warhead the size of greyhound bus in Moscow. "I am for the stars, but sometimes I hit London" ~Werner Von Braun

        We are closer to the stone age than we are to real space travel, don't get your hopes up. The only, and I repeat only, viable space exploration so far

    • Re:Sweet! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by tommasorepetti ( 2485820 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @03:07PM (#39535805) [] This is not exactly new... at all. NASA's ion engines have been in service for several years now. Also a tenth liter of fuel is also willfully misleading: the engines expell a liter of propellant but that is not fuel. It is just the expelled material whose momentum generates the forward thrust.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by crutchy ( 1949900 )
        my car doesn't use fuel either... just material that when ignited in a mixture with oxygen generates an explosion inside a chamber with a piston that imposes a moment in a crankshaft and induces a reaction from the earth against the tire surfaces in such a way as to get me where i need to go with a bit of interaction via an orientation correction device inside the cabin. apparently there are 6 of these miraculous so called "cylinders" in my transportation machine! modern technology is just amazing isn't it?
        • You misunderstand. Your car is fueled by gasoline, which drives the pistons. This "new engine" is fueled by a nuclear reactor, or solar, or whatever, and the tenth liter of "fuel" is just inert reaction mass. There is no energy to be extracted from it, it's merely something to push off of.
        • The difference is this: a rocket engine not only uses the oxygen/hyrdrogen mixture as the propellant (the steam that is being expelled from the rear) but also as a "fuel" i.e. that from which the whole process derives its energy. The ion engine is using an imposed electric field gradient to accelerate the charge particles (ions) of its propellant out into the vacuum of space and to move the probe foward. The energy for this is coming from a combination of solar panels and a battery. One other weird thing ab
  • Speed (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Sarten-X ( 1102295 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:12PM (#39535459) Homepage
    I was under the impression that fuel to get to the moon isn't a major issue, if you can launch a few years before you need to be there. There's (almost) no friction to stop you...
    • I was under the impression that fuel to get to the moon isn't a major issue, if you can launch a few years before you need to be there. There's (almost) no friction to stop you...

      Actually, it only takes six months, according to TFA. And you and your life support, food, waste management, etc. must weigh less than a kilogram.

      • So basically, Anorexics make perfect astronauts.

        • Re:Speed (Score:5, Funny)

          by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:46PM (#39535693) Homepage

          Anorexic hamsters, possibly. Even Kate Moss weighed more than a kilogram.

          (You must be American and unfamiliar with SI units.)

          • Kate Moss is not dead (as of Mar 31, 2012).

          • (You must be American and unfamiliar with SI units.)

            actually a pound weighs less than a kilogram, but only on the surface of the earth because pound is not really a measure of mass, although retards who get their physics from supermarket scales are welcome to disagree.

            • by fatphil ( 181876 )
              A pound is an SI unit of mass, being as it is an exact multiple of the approved SI unit of mass (the kilogram), according to, amongst others, the NIST. E.g. see

              I conclude that you must be a retard and unfamiliar with SI units.
              • omg another nist dickhead. lucky for you nist only operates on the surface of the earth, or you'd be completely fucked
        • So basically, Anorexics make perfect astronauts.

          Or double amputees. Arms are useful in space. Legs are just excess mass that take up space and get in way.

      • by mikael ( 484 )

        Guess the space mice win this race again.

        • NASA has been spending its budget on a developing a super race of monkey that will someday supersede humanity in space exploration. that's why they've achieved fuck all else since the moon race.
      • so - Smurfs in Space, directed by Michael Bay?
        • Don't give him ideas. We have to be careful about mentioning insane and stupid ways of ruining our childhood memories.
          If we're not careful, he'll do something like reboot the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with the premise that they are aliens.
  • From Where? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Colonel Korn ( 1258968 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:13PM (#39535465)

    Seriously, I can travel to the Moon with no fuel if I start in the right position with the right momentum. TFA doesn't tell us much unless the secrets are hidden in the video I'm blocking on the bottom of the page.

    • Re:From Where? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Colonel Korn ( 1258968 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:16PM (#39535477)

      Seriously, I can travel to the Moon with no fuel if I start in the right position with the right momentum. TFA doesn't tell us much unless the secrets are hidden in the video I'm blocking on the bottom of the page.

      Sorry to self-reply, but:

      Can we stop having summaries posted where the only link goes to the Daily Mail? Every human should be disgusted that our species can produce something as wretched and pathetic as that hive of stubborn ignorance.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        It could be worse. We could be linking to digg or reddit posts.

        Also, the video says it can get to the moon in 6 months. They don't mention what the initial orbit is like, so I would hope they mean that they can make it from an arbitrary orbit to the moon in that time.

        • by icebike ( 68054 ) *

          It could be worse. We could be linking to digg or reddit posts.

          Also, the video says it can get to the moon in 6 months. They don't mention what the initial orbit is like, so I would hope they mean that they can make it from an arbitrary orbit to the moon in that time.

          Also glossed over is the earth-to-orbit costs. Once you ignore 95% (number pulled from ass) of the cost everything sounds cheap.

          Grabbing and tossing spent satellites back to earth is also nonsense. At most, you only need to slow them down by some calculated amount, but then you also have to disengage, turn around, and thrust your way back to a safe orbit to pursue the next piece of space junk. You will need years of "fuel" (mass to eject) to make a dent in the junk pile orbiting earth, and an enormous ban

        • by shilly ( 142940 )

          digg or reddit aren't even close in vileness to the mail. the mail is a pustulent discharge from the thin-lipped mouth of its editor

      • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:48PM (#39535703) Homepage

        Maybe we can try 'right position and right momentum' with Timothy'. A good swift kick in the kiester would do him some good....

      • Re:From Where? (Score:5, Informative)

        by hrshea ( 2599465 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:52PM (#39535729)
        As the lead author of the work, I'm happy to give you some more direct links EPFL press release: [] MicroThrust consortium: [] EPFL research on micro propulsion: []

        The propulsion system emits ions at high speed (40 km/s) and is thus very efficient at converting propellant mass to satellite momentum. Thrust is low, but given time, ver lge orbit chanegs are possible. for example, in order to reach lunar orbit from low-Earth orbit, a 3-kg nanosatellite with our motor would travel for about 2 years and consume about 500 grams of fuel" - Herb Shea

        • by Anonymous Coward

          so what... are you some kind of rocket scientist?

          • by mikael ( 484 )

            Discussuon on a talk show:

            Interviewer: "Now Dr., can you explain what the obstacles are to a manned mission are?

            Scientist: "Well, the first problem is getting your vehicle out into Earth orbit. Then you have to get your trajectory right in order to reach Mars orbit. Then you can send down an exploration vehicle. The main problems are carrying enough food and water as well as waste disposal. Radiation is another problem. But all of these problems have solutions developed for terrestrial exploration."


        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Wow. Just... wow. At first I thought the reason this was over-hyped was because it was in the Daily Fail. But no. You actually have it on your own press release.

          You, sir, are a charlatan. Perhaps you can get to the moon on a few "drops" (nice non-defined quantity there) of fuel, but you have to start in Earth orbit - ie in terms of energy 99% OF THE WAY THERE.

          If you had any decency at all, you would at least insist that your own headlines be something along the lines of "From Earth's Orbit to the Moon on 50

          • Overreaction much? Blame the journalists not the researchers, I don't think they're doubling as full-time PR people.
        • by nojayuk ( 567177 )
          Sound like a smaller version of SMART-1 launched in 2004 which used an ion thruster consuming 80kg of xenon propellant to move a 300kg satellite from orbit around Earth to a Lunar orbit about 15 months later. The neat thing you're suggesting is doing it with a microsatellite although whether it could carry out any sort of useful function once it was in Lunar orbit is debatable; just having enough radio transmission capability to return scientific data to Earth on such a small satellite would be a major stu
        • Ultra-small and little propellant? I don't see a moon transport there. I see a sat manouvering/orbit-maintainance/deorbiting thruster. Even a very little thrust would be of a lot of use there, but weight matters.
        • This device sounds basically like a miniaturized ion drive. Is that correct? If so, how does its efficiency compare with ion drives in use on exploration spacecraft?

          Either way, I'm sure Scotty would be impressed with your work [] :)

    • by youn ( 1516637 )

      Indeed, in the right position, adequate life support, with a fart loud enough (and by loud I mean powerful... we all know there is > no sound in space)... you could get to the moon in no time :p

  • Wow (Score:5, Funny)

    by kamapuaa ( 555446 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:17PM (#39535487) Homepage

    Who would have guessed this got posted by Timothy!

    • by wisnoskij ( 1206448 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:30PM (#39535589) Homepage

      I do not think that the news is that they reinvented it, and seriously everyone on /. knows of the about ion-engines so there is little point in even mentioning it. But that here is a practical use of that engine that works better then anything else we are currently using.

      • by EdZ ( 755139 )
        Except we did use it. To go to the moon. Over a decade ago [].
      • But that here is a practical use of that engine that works better then anything else we are currently using.

        Sure, it "works better" in that it uses less fuel... but it doesn't "work better: in the sense that it now takes weeks to transport a millionth of the mass that more conventional methods can.

        As I've said before, capabilities matter. A motor scooter that can't top 35mph gets much higher fuel mileage than a semi... but only a fool would confuse the two.

  • Misleading (Score:5, Informative)

    by mmmmbeer ( 107215 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:20PM (#39535515)

    The new thruster has nothing to do with getting to the moon or even getting into space. It's a way for a small satellite to maneuver once it is in orbit. It could possibly be used for getting into lunar orbit from low earth orbit, but its intended purpose right now is to help clean up debris.

    • LOL Exactly!!! Why are people solving problems that we don't need solved and not solving things we really need solved? How about these geniuses come up with an economic way to get things from the surface of Earth into high earth orbit instead.
      • We know how to do that, but all of the proposed systems either can't be used for complex (and organic) payloads, or leave large swaths of scorched Earth in their wake.
  • Ion thrusters have been around for a long time; NASA and the ESA have been using them for over a decade.
    • Re:How is this new? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by queazocotal ( 915608 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:42PM (#39535671)

      Well over a decade.

      The fundamental problem with ion thrusters (as a general class) is that you trade power use for fuel use.

      Yes, they may use lots less fuel. [] - for example.

      An advanced ion thruster may use nearly 1/50th of the fuel of a conventional rocket engine.
      But, it needs 50 times the power to do this.

      So, to replace a conventional rocket engine burning a kilo of fuel a second, and producing a thrust of perhaps 500kg, with no electrical requirements, you need about 20 grams of fuel a second, and around 450 megawatts of power.

      Needless to say - for many applications, the power plant ends up heavier than the engine it's replacing.

      It only works in very low thrust applications.

      The low thrust also brings other problems.
      For example, around the earth is a belt of charged particles.
      Ascending through these on conventional rockets is not a problem. You do it so rapidly.

      With ion engines, you need to slowly spiral out (due to being power limited), and your whole craft gets highly irradiated.

      • Sounds like a great application for orbital solar power satellites beaming microwave energy to a rectenna onboard the craft. That is, if the engines can scale up.
        • And even better, the smaller the satellite, the larger the surface (= power received) to mass (= inertia) ratio. Smaller satellites should get better acceleration from both solar cells and any kind of energy receiving equipment (microwave rectenna or solar cells illuminated by a CW laser, although microwaves are probably much more practical).
        • Well - yes, and no.

          The fundamental problem with microwaves is - they're microwaves.
          They are just another sort of radio, and like all radio waves, and light, and ... - they undergo diffraction.

          This limits how much you can focus them.

          A 'small' transmitter antenna of say 1km, with microwaves of about 10cm wavelength, will have a beamwidth of about:
          1.22*.1m / 1000m.
          This is a beam which spreads about one part in ten thousand.

          After 10000km, the beam will be one kilometer in diameter. At the distance of the moon -

          • Any reason why you wouldn't use, say, millimeter waves? 10 cm sounds like an awfully lot.
            • Millimeter waves are very hard to produce, espicially at high power. Microwaves are easy, infrared is easy, but that gap in between is just hard to work with.
      • by mk1004 ( 2488060 )
        Maybe something like this could be added to new comm satellites. Use an ion engine from LEO to GSO with enough fuel to bring it to re-entry at end of life. Or, maybe put back into LEO to refit and use again. As far as the Van Allen belt is concerned, shielding of sensitive components would be required.
      • While I do like that you're using SI-units, I find myself being a bit pedantic about your choice of units. Thrust is force, and therefore measured in Newton [N], not kg.
    • Re:How is this new? (Score:5, Informative)

      by hrshea ( 2599465 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @03:11PM (#39535839)
      This ion thruster is unique by its extremely small size. we have miniaturized not only the ion emitter, but the entire thruster including high-voltage electronics and tank. Our complete thruster has a mass of 200g (including 100 ml of fuel), thus allowing it to be used on nanosatellites. It is the first high efficiency electric propulsion system that can be used in cubesats and 5kg satellites, such as those being planned for OLFAR The principle of operation of colloid thruster a bit different from the ion engines used fro instance on SMART-1, which uses ionize Xenon. in our case, we use a particular conductive liquid, an ionic liquid, from which we can extract both positive and negative ions. using a liquid avoids a pressurized tank, and allows for important simplification of the system (no valves, no heavy tanks, all flow controlled by capillary and electrostatic forces. using the ionic liquid allows the same speed as using a gas, but offers one big advantage: since we emit (from 2 chips in parallel) both positive and negative ions, the spacecraft stays electrically neutral, which is essential for electric propulsion to avoid having the ions fly back to the spacecraft. for more conventional electric propulsion systems, only positive ions can be emitted, so a neutralizer is needed to emit electrons to keep the spacecraft charge neutral. not having a neutralizer allows significant mass and power savings.
      I'm biased, 'cause I work on this! []
      - Herb Shea
      • What kind of liquid compound do you use for the working mass? Also, the link does not work for me. You're probably missing an 'r' there.
      • by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Saturday March 31, 2012 @04:50PM (#39536449)

        Parent link is bad. Try this: []

      • by fritsd ( 924429 )
        I looked at the picture "Basic architecture of the electrostatic colloid thruster system" on the website ( []).

        Is there any particular reason why you use a colloid compound? Is it because it's heavier (more Daltons) and yet cheaper than Xenon atoms?

        Also, if you turn your drive on for a year, wouldn't the extractor grid electrode get gummed up or "poisoned" with the molecules that are too lazy to be accelerated "to infinity and beyond" by the secon
      • by Anonymous Coward

        It still seems like you're conflating "fuel" and "propellant". You're using 100ml of propellant, but accelerating it using an energy source external to that 200g budget, right?

        This is still a big deal, since even small satellites can deploy significant solar panels, but it seems like you'll avoid a lot of arguments and criticism by clarifying this point up front.

        And, as another poster said, thanks for participating in this discussion!

  • The fortune at the bottom of the page in which I'm posting says:

    The most important service rendered by the press is that of educating people to approach printed matter with distrust.

    But evidently Timothy doesn't read to the bottom of the page, either.

  • The expensive part (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gmuslera ( 3436 ) * on Saturday March 31, 2012 @02:31PM (#39535601) Homepage Journal
    is launching to space from earth/moon surface. Traveling once there, and landing (at least in earth) could be relatively inexpensive. But once the space elevator, space fountain or other approaches are built and gives us relatively cheap ways to reach space, this kind of approachs could make a difference.
    • Hehe. Once the space elevator is built?!? And just who is going to build it and how? It isn't going to happen in our lifetimes (or on this planet) given the current political and economic environment. Just think what would happen if some blew up one of those in construction!!! Wow.
  • Be sure to bring enough food to last the appreciably longer trip.
  • As others have noted, this is only "new" in the sense that they've made a prototype of a particular design. There's no new technology from what I can see. Ion engines have always been well suited for any mission that can be performed with tiny amounts of thrust over a long period, and it's not surprising you can plot a very-low-thrust course that can get you to the moon if you have plenty of time.

    I still have my doubts about microsatellites. There are fixed costs to launching satellites regardless of si

  • by Metricmouse ( 2532810 ) on Saturday March 31, 2012 @03:16PM (#39535861)
    and that is not the big issue, as getting off the ground is always the big expense, but we all know that. This tech can be useful in reducing weight costs for sub orbital payloads though, and probably resembles the design of a DS4G engine. The problem with efficiency in the past is that motors required high voltages to accelerate the ions that collided with the electric field grids. DS4G used a two stage four line grid with the top grid closely spaced and of higher voltage, with an open spaced lower voltage bottom grid. These differences between these stages allow higher velocity without ion grid collision at overall lower voltages resulting in 4x the fuel efficiency of previous engines.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Ion thrusters are not new Have been used for decades to do attitude correction on satellites and have been the primary propulsion for a couple probes to the outer edge of the solar system.

    The story at the link asks if this is available for cars. Yes! it is! and your car will travel just as fast as if you got out and blew on the back of it!

    • by jamesh ( 87723 )

      The story at the link asks if this is available for cars. Yes! it is! and your car will travel just as fast as if you got out and blew on the back of it!

      That's the dumbest thing i've ever heard. You don't need to get out of the car, you can just stick your head out the window and blow backwards. Just remember to turn your head 180 degrees to inhale. And do the opposite if you want to slow down.

  • So if these things are so damn efficient but also weak, would it make sense to move big structures with a whole giant slew of these thrusters? Or do they individually scale up? How much fuel would it take to move something of the mass of the ISS into Martian orbit? That would be traveling in style!
  • Is biggest expense of fuel i bet.

  • We can build our Moon Base for super-cheap with exported Mexican labor!
    NEWT!!! NEWT!!! NEWT!!! NEWT!!! NEWT!!! NEWT!!!

  • How big would this thing need to be to get a human being to the moon in under a week?

  • According to slashdot this article was posted April 1... I'm not buying it.

  • Great, now when I start to feel like perhaps my GPS device is taking me to the moon on the way to downtown, it actually might be. Though, how settling it is to know that next time I'm golfing on the moon, they could have an array of GPS satellites in orbit that will tell me where the next hole is. It really all starts to look the same up there after a while.
    But seriously, what is there to do with satellites around the moon? Certainly something less useful than around Earth. Still neat though.
  • This sounds very similar to Digital Solid State Propulsion [], a states-side company that has been testing electrically-fired chemical microthrusters for at least the last several years. The DSSP thrusters (at least the ones I've seen so far) ranged from about the size of a .22 shell casing to an "AA" battery, and produce a controlled jet of ionized gas when electricity is applied (a gelled fuel inside is slowly consumed in the process). They're intended for propulsion and micropositioning (e.g. long-term stat

"If you lived today as if it were your last, you'd buy up a box of rockets and fire them all off, wouldn't you?" -- Garrison Keillor