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Ion Drive for Propelling a Spacecraft

The experimental solar-powered ion drive of the Deep Space 1 space probe expels its xenon gas exhaust at a speed of 30,000 m/s, ten times faster than the exhaust velocity for a typical chemical-fuel rocket engine. Roughly how many times greater is the maximum speed this spacecraft can reach, compared with a chemical-fueled probe with the same mass of fuel (reaction mass) available for pushing out the back as exhaust?

Momentum equals mass multiplied by velocity. Both spacecraft are assumed to have the same amount of reaction mass, and the ion drive's exhaust has a velocity ten times greater, so the momentum of its exhaust is ten times greater. Before the engine starts firing, neither the probe nor the exhaust has any momentum, so the total momentum of the system is zero. By conservation of momentum, the total momentum must also be zero after all the exhaust has been expelled. If we define the positive direction as the direction the spacecraft is going, then the negative momentum of the exhaust is canceled by the positive momentum of the spacecraft. The ion drive allows a final speed that is ten times greater. (This simplified analysis ignores the fact that the reaction mass expelled later in the burn is not moving backward as fast, because of the forward speed of the already-moving spacecraft.)

The ion drive engine of the NASA Deep Space 1 probe, shown under construction (left) and being tested in a vacuum chamber (right) prior to its October 1998 launch. Intended mainly as a test vehicle for new technologies, the craft nevertheless carried out a successful scientific program that included a flyby of a comet.

Last Update: 2009-06-21