A new type of plasma thruster, currently in development at the Australian National University, could be a game-changer for deep space missions. Researchers at ANU believe that the new plasma thruster will help satellites travel for longer and farther into deep space. And unlike most plasma thrusters, which use expensive noble gases like xenon, the ANU’s helicon double layer plasma thruster (HDLT) will be able to use virtually any kind of propellant, including human urine.
With the help of a $4 million (AU) grant from the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, researchers from ANU are teaming up with EADS-Astrium and the Surrey Space Center to design the new plasma drive. In contrast to conventional rockets, which burn chemicals and are slow, plasma thrusters use radio waves to excite a gas until it turns into a plasma. Then, using a magnetic field, the plasma is exhausted from the engine which creates a thrust.
Lead researcher Rod Boswell from the Space Plasma Power and Propulsion Laboratory says the engine won’t need moving parts or a grid, which means that it can use a wider variety of fuels than most other plasma drives. “We can use any type of propellant, including piss,” Boswell told The Register. “In the International Space Station, there’s a system that extracts water from urine, known as the ‘Russian piss-presser’. The result ends up with a pH around one – we could easily use that.”
And best of all, the HDLT thruster is extremely fuel efficient. As Gizmodo notes, because power used only to create the plasma and maintain the electric field, the thruster will use very little fuel. Testing will soon be held on the HDLT, and ANU hopes to use the thruster to launch a satellite within two years.