The X3 engine: NASA’s record-breaking ionic thruster

The X3 engine, NASA’s newest thruster engine, has broken not one, but three records. Some even say that this new thruster could be what we need to get us to Mars.

Ionic thrusters are a very specialised type of engine often used in outer space travel. Put simply, ionic thrusters give their propellant a charge by removing electrons from it. These ions are then accelerated to propel or push the spacecraft and plasma is released to create thrust. This effectively makes an incredibly powerful means of propulsion with much less fuel required. Ionic thrusters are typically smaller and much more efficient than standard combustion engines, though the X3 is a little bit different than most. While it is incredibly efficient, it is also much larger than earlier designs. The X3 engine reportedly weighs 500 pounds and, while other ionic thrusters can be carried by a single person, the X3 has to be moved around using a crane.

The X3 engine is much larger and heavy than previous thruster engines such as the X2.
The X3 engine is much larger and heavy than previous thruster engines such as the X2.

In a recent test, the X3 engine, developed with the help of the University of Michigan, broke three different records for this type of engine. The X3 managed to create a thrust of 5.4 Newtons (the standard unit of force). This greatly surpasses the previous record of 3.3 Newtons. It also broke records for maximum power output and operating current levels.

The future possibilities

Many are speculating that the X3 could make travelling to Mars a much faster trip. At 40km/s (144,000 km per hour), ionic thrusters can reportedly achieve speeds eight times greater than those of standard combustion engines. With the X3’s superior performance and power, some predict that a perfected version of the engine could take us to Mars in as short a time as six months. What’s more, this could be achievable within the next decade. If so, this would be a very real step closer towards creating inhabited settlements on Mars. At the very least, this could greatly enhance the range and speed of space travel in the future. It’s not quite warp speed, but it’s still about twenty times faster than the fastest aircraft inside our atmosphere.

Even if it's still slower than most things on Star Trek.
Even if it’s still slower than most things on Star Trek.
Ronan Daly

Ronan Daly is a staff writer for My Good Planet who specialises in Technology and Science. With a Masters Degree in English, and over a decade's experience as a teacher and writer, Ronan has brought a breezy, learned style to My Good Planet, making occasionally complex material accessible and understandable to all.

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