SYDNEY, Sept. 29 (Xinhua) — An Australian-designed rocket engine is heading to the International Space Station (ISS) for a year-long experiment that could ultimately revolutionise space travel.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday reported that the technology could be used to power a return trip to Mars without refuelling.
A former University of Sydney student Dr Paddy Neumann and his alma mater had developed an ion thruster, a small rocket engine on a spacecraft, that can be used to make alterations in its flight path or altitude to replace the current chemical-based rocket propulsion technology, which requires huge volumes of fuel to be loaded onto a spacecraft.
Professor Marcela Bilek, one of the co-inventors, said they built a system in the early 2000s that was a "cathodic arc pulsed with a center trigger and high ionisation flux."
At that stage of the project, it was basically a machine the size of a fist that spat ions from a very hot plasma ball through a magnetic nozzle at a very high velocity.
Bilek explained a cathodic arc was a system that used solid fuels metals and worked similar to a welding arc.
"Where you're ablating the material from the solid and turning it into what's called a plasma the sort of stuff you see in the sun," she said.
Bilek said that prior to Neumann joining them, the technology was used for thin films, and the later had wanted to see whether they could use the technology to turn it into thrusters.
"Just because it spits out these particles at very high velocities," Bilek said.
Neumann said he first became interested in the technology when he was a third-year physics and engineering student at the university.
He became interested in a special research project that the plasma physics department was doing, measuring the intensity of electric and magnetic fields during the pulse arc discharge.
"I helped them build the probe that took these measurements," Neumann said.
"These measurements that I took suggested that the titanium ions, and the titanium plasma we made, were moving at about 23,000 kilometers per second, in the middle of a strong magnetic fields, so they would have had to slow down to get there."
"The particles that come out of the back end of a hydrogen oxygen rocket, such as what was used to power the space shuttle, they move at about 4.5 kilometers per second," he said.
Space junk transformed into fuel for ships
The technology also uses recycled space junk, making it an environmentally aware project.
Bilek said magnesium came out on top in their tests as the fuel with the highest specific impulse, and so the most fuel efficient.
"Magnesium happens to be a light metal, which is very abundant in aerospace materials," she said.
Bilek said the next step for the Australian inventors was getting their technology to the ISS possibly by the end of 2018.
"We've been testing on Earth in a vacuum system to simulate space, but it's a small vacuum system, so this will be the first real test of a true space environment with on-board monitoring of the system."
It will be placed in a module outside the ISS, powered, as Neumann describes, by an extension cord from the station.