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Ion Drive

Entry updated 20 December 2011. Tagged: Theme.

A common item of sf Terminology derived from a theoretical means of Rocket propulsion. Chemically fuelled rockets are hampered by the necessity of carrying large burdens of fuel. Other systems, including the ion drive, propose using much lighter fuels, compensating for the decrease in the mass available for propulsion by ejecting it at correspondingly higher velocities. Ions (charged particles) can be accelerated to enormous velocities using a magnetic field, and so would seem an ideal fuel. Also, since all elements can be ionized (albeit with varying degrees of difficulty), ion-drive rockets could theoretically make use of pretty well any substance to hand. Although an ion drive would produce only a small acceleration because of the relatively tiny masses involved, this could be maintained for months or years, so that very high terminal velocities could be achieved. There is a surprisingly early sf appearance of the concept in Donald W Horner's By Aeroplane to the Sun: Being the Adventures of a Daring Aviator and his Friends (1910). The first successful test in space of such a system was in 1964 with NASA'S SERT (Space Electric Rocket Test) probe, which did not enter orbit; the propellant was ionized mercury and the electric power was derived from solar cells. The first successful orbital test of an ion engine was the ATS-4 flight on 10 August 1968. [PN]

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