Rocket Thruster Exploits the Mechanism Behind Solar Flares

Colonizing Mars seems to be a common goal of many aerospace engineers and scientists alike these days (shout out Elon Musk), and one physicist may have just devised a way to take us there. Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) Principal Research Physicist (try saying that five times fast!) Fatima Ebrahimi has developed a new kind of rocket thruster that takes advantage of science behind solar flares.

Rocket thrusters are what “thrust” rockets into space, if you didn’t know that already! Source: Pexels

This new device applies magnetic fields to particles of plasma, which is electrically charged gas and is considered to be the fourth state of matter, which makes them fire out of the back of the rocket. Due to the conservation of momentum, the rocket is then propelled forward, magic! Current technologies utilize electric fields to provide thrust.

Magnetic reconnection will be the concept to accelerate the plasma particles in this new device. This process is ubiquitous throughout the universe, including on the surface of our sun. Here magnetic fields converge and separate quickly and repeatedly, creating a large amount of energy. Tokamaks are interesting doughnut-shaped fusion devices that occur in the universe where reconnection also happens.

Ebrahmi, inventor of this revolutionary idea and author of a paper detailing it in the Journal of Plasma physics, had been thinking of this concept for some time. It had occurred to her that the high velocity particles generated by PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX) might not be all that different from a car’s exhaust. Magnetic bubbles called plasmoids were produced during the tokamak’s operation, which reached speeds of up to 20 kilometers per second, and Ebrahimi realised that this is very like thrust in essence.

Fusion is the source of power that the sun and stars run off of, and it combines the light elements in plasma (the hot, charged matter that makes up 99% of the entire universe) form to create huge amounts of energy. There is great hope for fusion energy on Earth to replace fossil fuels as an infinite source of renewable energy.

Plasma thrusters that currently utilize electric fields to energize particles can only create low specific speed or impulse. New tests and simulations performed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California proved that this new concept for plasma thrusters can create exhaust at hundreds of kilometers a second, up to 10 times faster than the current technology. 

This type of technology could bring planets that are further away, within reach. It results in much faster velocity at the beginning of a space journey, which greatly shortens the length of time it takes to travel long distances in space (are there any short distances in space?). Travel of this magnitude tends to take months and even years, as the specific impulse of chemical rocket engines is quite low, there spacecraft take a good amount of time to reach top speed. This is where magnetic reconnection comes in, and could result in much shorter times to reach other planets. Hold on Elon Musk, we’re about to populate Mars!

Will this be astronauts on Mars in the not-too-distant future? Hopefully! Source: Pexels

There are a few main differences between this concept and others. The first is by changing the strength of the magnetic fields, you can control the amount of thrust from the engine. With the right amount of electromagnets and magnetic fields, this gives an effect like turning a knob and increasing the velocity. Secondly, the new engine concept creates movement by ejecting magnetic bubbles (plasmoids) and plasma particles. The plasmoids are the secret ingredient, they produce more propulsion and no other engine utilizes this technology at the moment.

Lastly, light or heavy atoms can be used within the plasma due to the magnets field used in this new technology, as opposed to electric fields. This again gives more control to scientists to play with, allowing them to customize the amount of thrust needed for each individual mission. Regular rocket engines use heavy gas consisting of Xenon, whereas with this new concept pretty much any gas can be used. Lighter gases also means that smaller atoms can be moved easier, i.e. faster acceleration.

This new development really broadens the horizons of aerospace travel and exploration and makes goals once thought of as delusional, becoming more of a reality at a frightening pace. Research into fusion energy will bring more positive results in all energy producing fields, not only space travel.

What do you think of this new technology? Are you excited for space exploration, or do you think we should stay put on planet Earth? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Ryan Clancy is a mechanical engineer and blogger, with 5+ years of mechanical engineering experience. He’s passionate about all things engineering, especially mechanical, and bringing engineering down to a level that everyone can understand. Ryan lives in New York City, and writes about mechanical and all other types of engineering, at Mechanical Engineering HQ.