It is not only SpaceX that innovates in the field of aerospace. The European Space Agency (ESA) has just announced that it has passed the test of the very first ion engine powered with … air! Thanks to him, satellites in very low orbit around the Earth could recover the air from the upper atmosphere for use as fuel. They would be able to operate much longer than our current devices.
Even better: if the ESA prototype, developed by the Italian company Sitael, works with residual air composed mainly of oxygen and nitrogen, scientists say that this type of device could also work with the atmosphere of other planets. We could "recover carbon dioxide from Mars, for example" writes the European agency on its website. The potential applications would therefore be very numerous according to the members of the project.
Proof of Concept
Ionic thrusters are not new. ESA's GOCE satellite was already in use in 2009, but until now, they needed xenon, a noble gas, to work. Thanks to its 40kg of xenon, GOCE had for example held until 2013.
In fact, in an ion engine, the fuel is not burnt but ionized with electricity that is obtained through solar panels. It is then to accelerate the ions to produce a thrust. In this case, ESA has succeeded in replacing xenon with air absorbed from the outside and compressed. A great feat
For their test, the scientists began by feeding the propeller in a conventional way, with xenon. They then sent a mixture of air and xenon before starting the engine several times with air only. This technology "is no longer simply theoretical, but a tangible and functional concept, ready to be developed to serve a basic day for missions of a new kind" concludes, not without pride, Louis Walpot of the ESA