The very name of the T6 ion thruster sounds like something from sci-fi movie. But it’s very real, and this little engine will be one of four that take the European Space Agency’s BepiColombo spacecraft to Mercury.
The device measures just 11 inches in diameter and was designed for the ESA by UK-based Qinetiq. Most thrusters rely simply on a chemical reaction to create heat, which ejects propellants to cause thrust. But an ion thruster ionizes the propellants, creating charged particles that can be accelerated further using an electric field.
That simple-sounding trick ejects the propellant about ten times faster than a normal chemical thruster. But there’s a catch, as the ESA’s propulsion engineer Neil Wallace explains:
The BepiColombo spacecraft will carry the Mercury Transfer Module to the innermost planet of our Solar System, where Europe’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and Japan’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will be let loose. The whole mission will last almost 7 years.