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Advanced Space Travel & Space Propulsion

Reality begins as a dream.

We’ve all heard the quote, “If man were meant to fly, God would have given him wings.” Yet millions of people throughout the world have flown — in fact, have flown so, so much farther than the Wright Brothers’ first flight took Orville Wright. Could we one day routinely voyage to other planets within our solar system, or even to the stars? NASA believes so, and is actively pursuing advanced space travel and space propulsion technologies for powering spacecraft to the planets in the solar system and beyond.

In fact, one of these new technologies, ion propulsion, became reality when it successfully powered the Deep Space 1 (DS1) spacecraft to a close encounter on 29 July 1999 with asteroid 9969 Braille (a.k.a. 1992 KD), a small asteroid with an eccentric orbit that periodically carries it inside the orbit of Mars. Ion propulsion is also being used in a more down to earth application, powering station-keeping thrusters on the Astra 2A European TV satellite (launched 30 August 1998). The ion propulsion thrusters, which must be fired every day to maintain proper orbit, are expected to extend the satellite’s useful life span from the normal ten years to as much as 25 years.

Chemical rockets, good for getting us outside of Earth’s atmosphere, are grossly inefficient for interstellar space travel. More efficient technologies are essential if mankind is to traverse the distances between the planets in the solar system or has any hope of voyaging to distant star systems. There is no shortage of theories as to how we will propel ourselves through deep space, this subject having long been a predominant theme of science fiction writers. NASA has actively recruited proposals, which are now taking shape behind a raft of equations and materials specifications. Many of these proposals are not feasible utilizing current technology; others are doable, but are cost-prohibitive in nature.

Just as numerous obstacles were overcome to make ion propulsion a reality, so it will be as some of the latest proposals make it off the drawing board and into laboratories and manufacturing facilities. To our grandchildren, flight to distant planets may be routine; to their grandchildren, exploration of distant star systems may be the dream that becomes reality. So long as Man’s thirst for exploration lives on, the barriers to that exploration will continue to fall. New space propulsion systems will take us to the stars; it is only a matter of time.

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 7 July 2003, updated 16 June 2006.

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