For all their promise for future space propulsion schemes, plasma drives have had a hard time gaining momentum. A $3.1 million grant aims to change that, giving Australian National University physicists a lift that should help them see their plasma engine all the way to orbit aboard a European satellite within two years.
ANU’s Plasma Research Lab is turning ten years of research into the Helicon Double Layer Thruster (HDLT), and if they can get it working consistently in the next two years it could head to space in 2013 as part of a collaboration between ANU, Surrey University, and European space/aerospace behemoth EADS-Astrium.Working plasma drives are sought after for their unparalleled bang-for-buck efficiency. Unlike chemical rockets that require huge amounts of propellant to achieve thrust, plasma engines can produce high exhaust velocities from relatively minuscule amounts of fuel. Researchers think the HDLT could eventually derive a five-hour burn in space from a single gram of propellant--the amount that chemical engines burn in the blink of an eye.