The ESO has tested a new thruster capable of using air molecules for propellant. We’re talking satellites that can skim the top of a planets atmosphere for gas fuse it in to energetic plasma and then return to power satellites in low orbit. In a process similar to a dolphin emerging from the ocean in search of oxygen.
Photo courtesy of Space.com
This is yet another innovation in the growing field of nuclear plasma fusion, similar to the Argon powered VASIMIR and Deutereium powered Polywell engine except for relegated to the range of air molecules in Earths orbit. The concept will likely expand to encompass any atmosphere but at this stage has only been tested on air molecules from Earth in speeds equivalent to orbit.
In a sense, this is the orbital, plasma powered equivalent to the SCRAMJET orbital re-entry vessel that collects air molecules to combust for fuel. What we are seeing is this same clever trick involved with figuring out a way to use the closest available element as an energy source. in this case, a combination of gases that happens to surround the vessel.
Photo courtesy of Rajesh
Of course A great responsibility comes in hand with such progress as it often does. If you’re going to harvest air as an energy source than focus need to be paid to how much would be too much. That would involve understanding how the quantity of air effects weather and life, How you can control the engines distribution to prevent overuse etc. Of course In doing it inherently brings up the reverse ethical question? Who controls which engines we can use and when?
The use may be minimal to start, but like any new technology if it is cheaper and more effective it will expand prolifically. At that point if there is not some sort of competent regulatory force in space than it will be beyond any one person or organisations ability to control
Whereas the condensation engine dealt with the reverse problem mainly – How do we figure out how much artificially prolonged condensation will effect cloud formation? We know it could help in times of drought but Air and water are highly correlated and both are vital too humankind. These are all crucial questions that should be discussed openly in a public domain.
ESA tested a type of collector that akin to a net captures incoming air at orbital speeds of 4.9 miles per second (7.8 kilometers per second).
This collection tank extracts nitrogen and oxygen molecules from the air, and turns them into fuel.
First of its kind, demonstrating how an air-breathing thruster would actually work in orbit.
“The air enters the collector due to the spacecraft’s velocity as it orbits around Earth. All it needs is electric power to ionize the compressed air.”