Images

Hands-on at this exhibit

  • Control plasma contained in a bell jar.
  • Light up a fluorescent tube near a plasma globe.
  • Play with an app comparing plasma and chemical rockets.

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Revolutionary rockets are helping spacecraft explore distant places.

 
Would you like to explore space with plasma rockets? Watch this video now.

Plasma is a state of matter of charged ions in gas-like movement. Its charge means plasma can be accelerated and steered by electric and magnetic fields, and that’s what makes it useful as a rocket fuel. Our exhibit highlights the properties of plasma, and shows how we’re developing new plasma rockets to propel space discovery.

In plasma, electrons have broken free of atoms. By using an electric field to accelerate this ionic mix, a small amount of thrust is created. The speeds achieved by the ions are ten times greater than the burnt products of traditional rocket fuels, making the plasma rocket much more efficient. That means spacecraft need only a few hundred kilos of fuel to travel much further distances, leaving room to carry bigger instruments. Right now, plasma is fuelling an exploration of the asteroid belt by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, and will power Europe’s first mission to Mercury in 2017.

Lead image: The Dawn spacecraft firing its ion plasma thruster on approach to the asteroid Ceres. Credit: JPL/NASA. While ‘Plasma rockets’ exhibit is not directly involved in NASA and ESA missions, the exhibitors’ work demonstrates why plasma rockets are useful for going long distances in space.