Mighty ions power space flight

Nasa have propelled their Deep Space 1 probe far into solar system with an engine said to be more efficient than any that have gone before it.

The Deep Space 1 probe has been in space for 200 days thanks to its ion propulsion engine, which has so far out-performed traditional space engines which run out of fuel after a few days.

Nasa believe the ion engine could allow other craft to explore regions in space that are currently beyond their reach.

Unlike the pyrotechnics of many rockets using solid or liquid fuels, the ion drive only emits a blue glow as ionised atoms of xenon are purged from the engine.

Expulsion of this electrically charged gas produces a tiny thrust in the engine and is said to be the equivalent of the pressure exerted by a piece of paper in the palm of your hand.

Lighter and more efficient than chemical rockets, this fuel is set to make space exploration cheaper and faster.

Nasa say the ion propulsion engine is a sluggish starter but it’s steady action builds up over a long period and it can deliver 10 times as much thrust per pound of fuel as traditional engines.

To put this into perspective, the ion engine will have accelerated the probe to 11,000 kilometres an hour by the end of the mission.

Deep Space 1 is expected to encounter the Comet Borelly in September 2001.