What do Australia, space junk, and the journey to Mars have in common? Well, that sort of remains to be seen. Over the next year, the International Space Station will be testing rocket propulsion technology developed by an Australian team that is fueled by space debris and could—someday—help us get to Mars. This new innovation centers on an ion thruster that could replace current chemical-based rocket propulsion technology. Since it is designed to make use of abundant space junk as a fuel source, it is not only efficient but potentially cost effective (with the handy side effect of cleaning up of some of that celestial garbage in the process).

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Dr Patrick “Paddy” Neumann is a graduate of the University of Sydney and he partnered with two professors from the college to develop an ion thruster (aptly dubbed the Neumann Drive) that aims to give current rocket propulsion technology a run for its money. The invention led to his founding of Neumann Space, a start-up working to further develop and advance the technology. The Neumann Drive uses solid fuel and electricity to produce thrust, in “a ‘wire-triggered pulsed cathodic arc system’ that works kind of like an arc welder,” according to the company’s website.

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This addresses one of the key issues SpaceX CEO Elon Musk mentioned last week during his detailed unveiling of his Mars plan: the need to refill while in orbit. Chemical-based rockets require enormous amounts of fuel to travel the long distance to Mars, so it isn’t logistically possible for a rocket to carry all its own fuel, which predicates the need to refuel in space. On the contrary, the ion thruster developed by Neumann and his team eliminates the fuel capacity need, since it utilizes space junk as a fuel source.

Among the “junk” the Neumann Drive can use for its propulsion are a number of materials common on Earth, as well as in space. The team touts magnesium as their most efficient fuel, best for longer cargo transport journeys. Aluminum, sourced mainly from space junk, is their best recycled fuel. Carbon, derived from recycled human waste, has also been tested. But the material that tops the list is a more unusual one: Molybdenum. It’s a heavy metal with a high melting point that would have to be sourced from Earth, but a small amount of fuel would last a very long time. “Moly,” as it’s known for short, is the fastest fuel tested so far in the Neumann Drive, and it’s the current favorite for fueling a passenger ship to Mars.

Via ABC Australia

Images via Neumann Space and Wikipedia