Star Trek-like Ion engines to rocket space agency’s Mercury shot

European Space Agency scientists have given the go-ahead to build an ion-powered engine for the agency’s spacecraft set to fly to Mercury in 2013.

The ion-powered engine in the BepiColumbo spacecraft will be one of the first of its kind to be the central component of the mission, experts said.   

In 1998, NASA launched a demonstration spacecraft called Deep Space 1, which flew by a near-Earth asteroid and went on to intercept a comet. ESA's SMART-1, with much less chemical boost, has gone only as far as the Moon. But it has served to demonstrate more subtle operations of the kind needed in distant missions, ESA noted. These will combine solar-electric propulsion with maneuvers using the gravity of planets and moons, the ESA says on its Web site. 

According to NASA, Ion propulsion is a technology that involves ionizing a gas to propel a craft. Instead of a spacecraft being propelled with standard chemicals, the gas xenon (which is like neon or helium, but heavier) is given an electrical charge, or ionized. It is then electrically accelerated to a speed of about 30 km/second. When xenon ions are emitted at such high speed as exhaust from a spacecraft, they push the spacecraft in the opposite direction.The ion-powered BebiColumbo will reach fuel efficiencies equal to 17.8 million miles per gallon, The Daily Telegraph reported.

The BepiColombo will consist of two orbiting spacecraft and its goal is to provide the most complete exploration yet of Mercury, according to ESA.  The Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) will map the planet, while the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) will investigate its magnetosphere. Both orbiters will be launched together on a single Soyuz-Fregat rocket from ESA's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. For its journey, BepiColombo will exploit the gravity of the Moon, Earth, Venus and Mercury itself in combination with solar-electric propulsion (SEP), according to the ESA. 

BepiColumbo will travel 4.3 billion miles and use the gravity of the Moon, Earth, Venus and Mercury to move it along its course. During the voyage to Mercury the two orbiters and the transfer module, consisting of electric propulsion and chemical propulsion units, form one single composite spacecraft. Arrival at Mercury will be in late summer 2019, six years after launch.

 NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft this month made history by sending back some never before seen  shots of Mercury. 

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