Imagine an electric solar wind sail to and from Mars and refueling the launch vehicle mid-air on Mars orbit, thanks to E-sail technology that is a novel propellant-less technolgy.
The new fundamentally different and economically sustainable approach may be useful for bi-directional manned Mars mission in the future, say researchers. The E-sail technology was invented in Finland in 2006.
What is E-sail technology?
Essentially, the E-sail tech or electric solar wind sail, is a form of spacecraft propulsion method using the dynamic pressure of the solar wind as a source of thrust. The technology uses an electric field for deflecting solar wind protons and extracting momentum from them.
Invented by Pekka Janhunen from Finland in 2006, it creates a “virtual” sail by forming an electric field on small wires. A researcher in the Finnish Meteorological Institute, he maintains that the E-sail could make asteroid mining feasible by providing the most-needed logistics in the solar system outside of Earth’s magnetosphere.
“After finding a suitable water bearing asteroid, a mining unit could be sent by the Electric Sail to extract the water from asteroid soil,” said Janhunen, adding that this can be achieved by heating the material and letting the vapour get into a cool container for condensing.
Once it is filled, it should be separated from the mining unit and transported with an E-sail in to the orbit of Mars or Earth, where it is split into hydrogen, oxygen and liquefied. The liquid hydrogen or oxygen fuel can be pumped into the tanks of manned vehicles on voyage between Earth and Mars.
“With cheap propellant available in Mars orbit, there is also the option of fully propulsive landing on Mars which eliminates the need of a massive and expensive heat shield,” said authors of a paper recently published.
On running costs, the researchers say the E-sail technology is not expected to be greater than that of maintaining the International Space Station currently. More like a science fiction, the new technology may prove feasible soon and make manned mission to and for Mars a possibility.
The findings have eben published in the journal Acta Astronautica.
Currently, a new European Union-funded electric sail study project is underway at a cost of 1.7 million euros with its soul objective of building laboratory prototypes of the key components for the technology.
A 3-year project, the E-Sail technology could enable faster and cheaper access to the solar system, and in the longer run may enable an economic utilisation of asteroid resources, said researchers. The technology was tested in 2013 on the Estonian ESTCube-1, and again in 2014 on the Finnish Aalto-1 nanosatellites.