ion engine

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A type of jet-propulsion engine that may become important for propelling or controlling spacecraft. It consists of a unit producing a beam of ions, which are accelerated by an electric or electromagnetic field. Reaction forces from the high-speed ions causes propulsion in much the same way as that caused by exhaust gas of a rocket. However, a separate beam of electrons or ions of opposite polarity to the propelling beam must also be ejected from the engine to enable recombination to take place behind the vehicle (to avoid the vehicle becoming charged). Ion engines provide high specific impulse and therefore low propellant consumption. The three main components of an ion engine are the power generator, the propellant feed, and the thruster. The power generator may be a nuclear reactor or a solar-energy collector. If it is the former, a gas turbine is coupled to the reactor and the turbine drives an electric generator. A solar-energy unit provides electricity direct. The propellant chosen needs to have an ion of medium mass (low mass for high specific impulse, high mass for high thrust) and a low first ionization potential. Caesium and mercury are materials currently envisaged as suitable propellants. The thruster consists of an ionizer to produce the ions, an accelerator to provide and shape the accelerating field, and a neutralizer (usually an electron emitter) to neutralize the fast-moving ion beam after ejection.

Subjects: Physics.

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