"Incredible Ions" © NASA/JPL - science.nasa.gov
The drive for greater, more cutting edge missions and the need for more cost effective use of the satellite “real estate” is a good thing if you are a provider of ion propulsion technology…or so it would seem!
On the flip side, ion thrusters are still viewed as more risky, more complicated, more hassle, even though no-one can deny the WOW factor that they have…there just is something extra “ehh…” when you look them over.
Yet their advantages are many and literally mind-blowing when it comes to enabling mission… and it’s not just idle boasts either
..the WOW factor is real tangible successes in space missions: Hayabusa, GOCE, Deep Space 1 and DAWN.
The uses of ion propulsion aren’t just the wistful dreams of rocket scientists doing the conference circuit…they have become a fixture of the current and next generation missions.
But why do we need ion propulsion really?
Can’t we do it all with chemical? And aren’t the systems overcomplicated?
I’d say yes and no in equal measure as coming from my background and experience with ion thrusters they can be a blessing and a curse.
A blessing because they are fantastic devices which I don’t think as yet (apart from maybe the T5 on GOCE) have really been used in anger to their full capability. Most of the time they are used like truck engines…switch them on, go to a thrust level and leave there for 3 months.
But they can also be a curse, as success begets greater desire to push the performance envelope, to get the last drop of functionality out of them, even if it means tearing your hair out solving impossible tasks…and often meaning that you don’t really get to the real heart of what a customer wants the thrusters and system to do….
Often, simpler is better
…just get it into space and have it working…then make it more complicated!
What does ion propulsion do for space missions in general?
I believe they force everyone to re-evaluate how space missions can be done. I see them as not only a game changer in what you can and cannot put on a satellite in terms of payload and functionality but I also see them as a reality check…because you can make the systems way too complicated with ion propulsion and spend so much time fussing over non-critical requirements….
And all that does is push schedules to the right and projects into loss…a Pyrrhic victory each time…
So once you realise this and that you can make an ion propulsion system that is simpler and yet still provides cutting edge capability at a price…it re-trains the average space engineer and scientists mind into thinking about long term viability, making profits and doing this to meet the real needs of the mission.
Ion propulsion is just that good that sometimes it pays to have restraint.