High-Speed Plasma Ship Developed
by Team 25763
A new type of fast, inexpensive, and easy to build propulsion system has been designed- one that uses plasma sails to propel a spacecraft 10 times the speed of the Space Shuttle.
A University of Washington team, led by geophysicist Robert Winglee, has developed the Mini-Magnetospheric Plasma Propulsion system, M2P2. M2P2 is a system that uses a huge, 24 mile, plasma field (that can surround something like a satellite) to propel it to a maximum speed of 180,000 miles per hour, or 4.3 million miles a day, which is about 10 times the speed of the space shuttle. When attached to a spacecraft, it could theoretically move across the continental United States in just 10 seconds, but because of the way the propulsion system works, it could not operate within the earth's atmosphere.
The physics of the ship are similar to a sail.
M2P2 mimics nature- the sun creates mini-magnetospheres or `magnetic clouds'
The system uses solenoids (devices made of wire, wound many times to make a cylinder, and if a current is sent through the wire, it produces a magnetic field inside of the wire) to generate an 24 mile wide electromagnetic field, surrounding a spacecraft. The electromagnetic field is filled with plasma (ionized gas), generated by a plasma chamber that is very small- about the size of a 1-liter bottle. The sail then catches solar wind, propelling it along it's path.
Problems associated with other types of spacecraft aren't an issue with M2P2. The system wouldn't have to carry any fuel onboard, because the sun would power the spacecraft. There wouldn't be any problems with weight or deployment, because the system can use a regular satellite. The whole system would only cost about $1 million, because the concept doesn't require new technology, and is very simplistic. Although the system is simplistic and inexpensive, space scientists are saying that NASA is unlikely to be building the system in the near future.
"It's [M2P2] orders of magnitude simpler but offers the same or better performance than the kind of sails NASA is developing," said Kevin Rudolph, a senior engineer at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. "There's an enormous conservatism in the aerospace industry that has to be overcome," Rudolph said. "That's the biggest problem Bob [Winglee] has to face."
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