The X3 Ion Thruster Is Here, This Is How It’ll Get Us to Mars

The X3 Ion Thruster Is Here, This Is How It’ll Get Us to Mars

Alec Gallimore: “What you’re seeing is this
energetic blue-greenish plasma that comes out of the thruster. It really looks like science fiction. In the end, we’re supplying electricity through
a wire and an inert gas and we turn it into this beautiful plasma that’s moving at tremendous
velocities that’s providing thrust that may one day send people to Mars.” Chemical rockets are the workhorses of the
space age, and they’ve had a pretty standard formula for the past 60 years. Get millions of pounds of liquid or solid
fuel into a rocket, light it on fire with an oxidizer, and then the speed of the propellant
shooting out the back gives the rocket enough thrust, or kick, to get into space. This works great for escaping Earth’s gravity. But if we want to get to Mars, chemical rockets
have hit their their performance limit. We need new propulsion systems that can rapidly
shoot a spacecraft across interplanetary distances, while using less propellant at the same time. That’s where the X3 comes in. As part of NASA’s NextStep program, the
X3 is an entirely new space engine that’s all electric. Alec Gallimore: “Electro-propulsion devices
have the equivalent of 10 times the propellant efficiency of a chemical system. To give you an example, a chemical rocket
tops out at around 40,000 mph. An electric system can go over 100,000 mph
and in fact, NASA is working on a project to design one that can actually achieve a
velocity of 500,000 mph. And at that speed you cover a distance between
the Earth and the Moon in about 30 minutes.” Here at the University of Michigan’s Plasmadynamics
and Electric Propulsion lab, engineers and students are working on the X3, a type of
electric propulsion design called a Hall thruster. Alec Gallimore: “Hall effect thrusters are
really a kind of a very ingenious propulsion system. We take a propellant, in some cases an inert
gas like xenon. We put a huge amount of energy into it, creates
a high temperature plasma, charged particles of electrons and ions, and then we can use
electromagnetic fields to shoot out the plasma at very high speeds. So they’re very simple in design, complex
though in operations and very, very efficient.” Hall thrusters aren’t just a thing of the
future. There are actually hundreds of satellites
above you right now using electric propulsion to stay in position. But this technology hasn’t been used for
manned missions yet, because the amount of thrust they’re capable of generating is
just too low, which means slower acceleration and a longer trip to Mars. So, we need more thrust. Ben Jorns: “Traditional Hall thrusters that
work in space operate between one and six kilowatts. Now the X-3 comes in and trying to scale Hall
effect thruster technology, into a new power operator machine. So going from six kilowatts to 100 or 200
kilowatts. And the advantage of that is if you go to
higher power, you can generate higher thrust. And therefore have higher acceleration. Instead of using one channel, which a traditional
hall thruster has three channels, so you take all those engineering requirements and you
multiply it by a factor of three.” For these engines to be used in space one
day, testing is critical, and these labs are uniquely equipped for the challenge. Alec Gallimore: “Sitting behind me is what’s
called ‘The Large Vacuum Test Facility’ the LVTF. It has one of the highest pumping speeds in
the world, which means it’s able to have a very low pressure while it’s operating a large
flow rate. And we use it to simulate space. We have 19 cryogenic pumps, that remove all
the air and all the gasses from the chamber so we can have a more realistic environment
to test these thrusters. Students run experimental campaigns in the
LVTF. One student might be trying to analyze the
life of a thruster. Another person might be trying to understand
how the electrons from the cathode make their way to the channel. A successful test is often when you find something
unexpected that ultimately leads you to having a better understanding of the device you’re
testing. And that happens quite a bit.” But the X3 is too powerful for even the LVTF,
and at this point, only NASA’s Glenn Research facility can handle its testing at full capacity. Alec Gallimore: “A typical thruster may
weigh 10 pounds, this thing weighs 500 pounds. So just designing and building all the components
of this mega-scale thruster was a challenge that we took on. Last year was a blockbuster year for the X3. It set records for Hall thrusters for the
highest power level at over 100 kilowatts of power. The highest level of thrust and actually the
highest amount of current being passed through any type of Hall current thruster.” These engineering achievements are key, because
electric propulsion is going to be a central part of our future in space. Alec Gallimore: “NASA is working on developing
a sort of a 20 year game plan. The idea is that we’ve been in the International
Space Station now for more than a decade and that has been a great. But the next step would be something like
a space station around the Moon. We would have an outpost around lunar orbit
to test new technologies that would be needed to have humans live in space. Hall thrusters are playing a really important
role in this…it’s baseline is to have a bank of four Hall effect thrusters around
because they want to be able to move around this space station and actually demonstrate
the ability to use electric propulsion of this kind with a human attended spacecraft.” The X3 is likely two incarnations away from
being flight ready, but the work happening here is all about demonstrating new principles
for how to design electro-propulsion engines. Ultimately, future space travel will use a
combination of chemical and electric propulsion to travel through space. And it’s projects like the X3 that make
a future mission to Mars even more possible. For more science documentaries, check out
this one right here, don’t forget to subscribe and keep coming back to Seeker for more videos.


  • Seeker

    The X3 is a collaboration among NASA, Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Michigan, and Aerojet Rocketdyne as part of NASA's NextSTEP program. Learn more about the initiative here: and here!

  • Danny Ocean

    Same shit different decade. Same promises same ideas same everything and no feasible results. Put this in the hands of billionaires and I guarantee we are colonizing the solar system in ten years, keep the government like nasa involved and we will continue to get the same shit for decades.

  • Clipper Guy Muto

    The truth is we can't tolerate extended stays in outer space! Do the research, our bodies tolerate anti-gravity, extream low pressure, the same for high pressure, as in deep-sea diving it is very destructive to us physically!

  • Wampa Chomp

    I was thinking about why we dont use electricity instead of fuel powered thrusters, hopefully people can figure our electric propulsion living on mars would be cuu or even having it where regular people could see space

  • zztop3000

    1:30 God, I hate it when they lie like this. Yes, full speed earth -moon distance, in reality it doesn't have enough thrust to break away from earth atmosphere. Why are you guys such fu*king liars

  • SorcererWaluigi

    I thought Ion engines were supposed to use highly radioactive gas put under pressure as fuel like a TIE fighter, not electricity. This doesn't sound like a real Ion engine.

  • DreamSpace WakeWalker

    This technology is yaers behind it's potential. But It's not far from electrogravitic propulsion. you need a more disc shaped vihecle and inner components to get that effect.

    But if you can cancel out mass you can travel to mars in nano secounds. The documents of this exist. But are ridiculed and cencored in mainstream science. Because some con artists want it that way. Truly dishonoring isn't it?

  • Larry Carmody CMD

    We mite go 500000 mph, but we must slow down when we get there. The moon has no atmosphere to use for slowing down, but Mars has an atmosphere to slow down.

  • peter8488

    Along with solar power they should include a passive battery recharge system that uses magnetic fields the way we recharge wireless batteries now.

    The further out we go the less effective solar recharge will be, using another source, maybe even nuclear combination.

  • Ethan Krauss

    If you would like to see an ion thruster that lifts itself and its complete power supply from the ground! Please click on the channel icon to the left to see flight footage.

  • Buzz Lightyear

    Seeker woman, oxidizers do not ignite the engine bell, just because you heard that word somewhere doesn’t mean you should spread false info. The real purpose of oxidizers are:
    -to make hydrogen(2) [liquid]into a gas/vapor for combustion to actually happen
    -in space “oxidizers’’ have one purpose which is to feed oxygen to the engine bell for space cannot support combustion

  • DD826

    there is a malfunction in any gay person, and this black guy is really gay. That means something wrong needs to be handled first. Before they can be trusted to do an important job.

  • Pavor

    Better than immersing hot shit in water to make steam like cavemen I guess. Still seem pretty short sighted to not use any form of vortex, torodial, or torsion, effects with your plasma expulsion though. You really just heat that shit up and let it escape? Yeesh, no wonder we still are a bunch of poo flinging tribes, I mean nations.

  • Lucien Tjin Asjoe

    Ion trusters is a waste. Too much energy, low trust. There are less hi tech more effective ways. Only think harder and don't be dogmatic

  • Floyd Mcmullen

    Why not refurbished the International Space Station and actually send it to Mars? Build another one here we already have one in space we don't have to get it off the ground

  • vapor man

    It really looks like science fiction he says why? Because it is absolute fiction. I feel for the sheep that were trying to wake up this is going to sleep them again they're too weak minded they think these persons who are actually actors are building things but in reality they can't even change the oil in their car.

  • Jason O'Leary

    I heard that one of the existing ion drives has the force which is similar to a 1 A4 page!! So this new system then has a similar force of just 30? So if we're talking about the moon.. let's stick with chemical propulsion because this new system weeks to get it up to speed

  • Jeebus

    This is important work to speed up long distance travel, however this video does not present the functionality in a very honest way. Particularly the explanation at 1:05 is quite a misleading explanation.

  • Dadson worldwide

    Seems like they could use a chemical that expands like some I've seen do like foam that grows like crazy .of course not foam but something that expanded like this ion just chemical.

  • Ashwood Heathen

    We are the middle children of history. We have no great war; no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression – is our lives.

  • Smuutti

    Watching a scientific context video on youtube. Hearing them speaking about miles and pounds. Quit watching and remember to avoid the channel.

  • Xeno Bardock

    Why rely on low efficiency ion propulsion? when you can modify the technology a bit by adding dielectric materials with very high dielectric constant like barium titanate or calcium copper titanate, use millions of volts with very high frequency pulsed DC or AC tuned to 1/4 wavelength so you can use aether instead for propulsion. Aether thruster built correctly will take astronauts to Mars in only in few days or few weeks. Aether is a fifth platonic solid entire physical universe is submerged in as there is no such thing as empty space. Aether propulsion is far more efficient than ion propulsion.

  • random person

    Would elongating the engine have any effect? Like make the engine as long as a rocket booster? Or 3D print one where it siphons thrust like an enclosed ionic ramjet? Or is that a daydream?

  • fakiirification

    Ion engines will never be on a manned vessel. Sure they are capable of high speeds, but it would take DECADES to achieve that speed. What good is a 10,000isp rocket engine that only produces .05kg of thrust? Fine for robotic probes, not so good for people who have lifespans to consider. Nuclear thermal rocket engines are the true ticket to Mars.

  • Ethan Krauss

    Please click on the channel icon to the left, to see 7 prototype ion thrusters that can lift their power supplies from the ground. Please notice that they are fully verified to work!

  • Isuzu Slider

    It may achieve a higher orbital velocity but it takes damn near 30x as long to get there, Sure the ISP is amazing but the thrust is only good for small space probes, I cant see these taking humans anywhere as they would take waaaaaaay to long.

  • John Curtis

    Interesting stuff. And probably the way things will go for true interplanetary travel. Especially in the area of cargo transport and the like. I can envision a "conveyor belt" type of loop between Earth, Moon, Mars, etc., with continuous streams of transport vessels in an endless loop.

    But one question. And my apologies if I missed it.

    The video shows all kinds of nice test rigging. What's the power source behind the Hall thruster? Some of the documents state into the multi-megawatts being used? Something has to be providing the 200 to 400 kW's of electricity (for these "initial" Hall thrusters) to make this thing go? Especially if it's to go further than a duck fart.

    So what's it to be? Something tells me solar panels won't suffice. Soooo…..some form of nuke? Obviously anything chemical would be self-defeating….

    American Net'Zen

  • Muhammad T

    Don't bother giving us the important details, Seeker. You know, like what the thrust is rated at. And did you guys seriously just gloss over the whole slowing-down part?

  • FCHB Offshore

    Start testing it in real time cause I've the knowledge that this isn't gonna work the China and India have a much more advanced way

  • Ronny Mueller

    Many ppl bashing about ion engines, but to me this is the future. Chemical rockets have only brought us so far. From the V2 engine 70 years ago to todays modern engines e.g. Rs25 or raptor, merlin, etc. there was really only an efficiency improvement of 50 to 100% and we have arguably hit its physical limits. Ion throws in a factor of 10 which is huge. This could bring us our whole solar system into reach. And here I come back to the critics. We need to work on this technology and over the next decades we will have breakthroughs in electricity storage and fusion power that could be paired to scale up these engines. And then we will be comfortably and routinely sending people to the moons of saturn and beyond.

  • Chocolate love

    This brings Elon to mind, maby he can get in on this research some how, since he is at the forefront of electric vehicles an electric truster for space craft should interest him .

  • Duckonquack 0o0

    What if they made smaller ones for cars so they could float.
    Like half that just take the 2x or 4x energy you’d have your 2024 space car theres a future for it

  • Marvin Werner

    1. You can't use the thruster to leave earth.
    2. If you can accelerate to 500.000 mph you need to take the fuel with you to decelerate back to 0

  • Will Ek

    I'm confused, how did they go from we scaled a type of engine by a factor of 3 to We Can Go ToO mArS nOw UnLiKE BeFoRe WheN We AlsO CoUlD

  • JOEL A.K

    You know these are fake right? We have arranged exhibition and have asked people to pose as of they ate actually doing something meaningful. Here what I see is just animations and led lighting to give color for different area of camera focus. That is LAME

  • Skipping Stones

    The speed of the propellant shooting out the back is not what moves the rocket forward. A rocket is moved forward by the propellant that is moving upward against the "roof" of the combustion chamber.

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