A) I didn’t realize Ion engines were “common”ly being used in space missions (but apparently we’re using them for missions to the moon, comets, and soon mercury).B) I’ve often wondered about the “keep it in a clean room” and then “blast it into space” aspect of space agency work.
This laboratory in a leafy part of Hampshire is where defence and security firm Qinetiq develops and tests its ion engines – a technology that will take spacecraft to the planets, powered by the Sun.
Ion engines are an “electric propulsion system”. They make use of the fact that a current flowing across a magnetic field creates an electric field directed sideways to the current.
This is used to accelerate a beam of ions (charged atoms) of xenon away from the spacecraft, thereby providing thrust.
“You spend 10 years working on a mission, treating the components and equipment like a newborn baby. You never take it out of the clean room, and then you put in on the top of 100 tonnes of high explosive and set light to it,” he says, laughing nervously.