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Japanese scientists make a breakthrough in the development of next generation space engines.
Plasma engines are considered to be something of a holy grail in the next stage of space exploration. Plasma thrusters are theoretically capable of producing a large enough thrust to propel rockets and satellites into outer space without the vast amount of fuel that current space engines require.
However, the process towards creating viable plasma engines has been beset with difficulties as the science is incredibly complex. As of yet, no designers have managed to produce a plasma engine which is capable of reaching outer space. However thanks to new research from Tohoku University, the world may have been brought one small step closer to this elusive goal.
Plasma is comprised of specially charged particles, which means that it can be directed and manipulated through the use of magnetic fields. Scientists and engineers working on the construction of plasma engines have experimented with magnetic nozzles to manipulate the plasma, but they have run into some problems when it comes to using this method.
The magnetic nozzle is designed to compress the plasma so that it will reach a higher state of energy and therefore a higher state of velocity when it is expelled from the engine. However, they have found that the magnetic field produced by the nozzle is formed in such a way that the plasma does not expel itself as required but instead curves back into the engine resulting in a net thrust of zero.
In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, two scientists named Kazunori Takahashi and Akira Ando have outlined how this problem may be fixable. The scientists suggested that it was possible to stretch the magnetic field lines to allow the plasma particles to escape into space in a very specific direction.
Instead of using the magnetic nozzle to achieve this, the scientists came up with the ingenious solution of allowing the plasma to direct itself. When charged particles are in motion, they will generate a magnetic field. This means that plasma itself can create the conditions to allow itself to escape and cause propulsion.
Despite the fact that their lab experiments were only slightly more successful than those carried out using a magnetic nozzle, their research has been hailed as highly significant as it has brought additional information into the pool of human knowledge about the nature of plasma itself. Scientists are aware that the vast majority of matter in space is comprised of plasma, but it is very rare on planet Earth. Therefore, any additional information about the nature of plasma is considered to be highly valuable when it comes to understanding the wider universe as well as bringing humans closer to developing viable plasma engines in the future.