Earth Date: 28 May, 2019
It’s hard for me to know, with any real expertise, the future of ion propulsion, its dangers or its possible applications outside space travel. NASA does, of course, have information about what we currently know about the technology, and about its use so far, but as for imagining the future, that is to be left to my own imagination.
Star Trek is a good guide for that imagination. After all, if imagination is good for anything, it’s envisioning the future, and Star Trek has been the guide for many technological pathways, including ion propulsion; it was Star Trek that gave NASA the idea of ion propulsion. As for the reality of interstellar travel, ion propulsion can’t grant us that power. While it is the most advanced technology we have developed thus far, it is still largely being used within our own system.
However, the Tau Zero Foundation is committed to discovering interstellar travel, and they have a long list of potential propulsion systems. According to their website, electric propulsion systems, such as ion propulsion, require a huge amount of power to propell them, and so can only be used in satellites or probes. Therefore, it’s unlikely that it would be used on any manned craft. They also suggest that probes might reach another star system within decades, but that such probes would more likely be fusion rockets or powered by antimatter than use ion propulsion.
So, closer to home, what are the potentials of ion propulsion? Right now, we of course have the Dawn mission and similar missions. There is also the mission to the moon and mars. In this mission, NASA plans to send astronauts to stay on the moon in chemical rockets, and to set up a solar electrical satellite to orbit the moon. Although the rocket to the moon does not use ion propulsion, it appears the satellite set to orbit it is.
Although all this does sound wonderful, we still have some way to go in terms of sustainability. Some propulsion systems, such as that of the fusion rocket, won’t be possible if we keep wasting helium.
[Edit: according to this wikipedia article on the Daedalus Project, helium might be mined from Jupiter]
However, that may be one more reason we are focusing more on ion propulsion than helium propulsion.
We aren’t carrying out these missions under the United Federation of Planets; NASA, with its international cooperation, is the closest thing we have to that. As such, we have a responsibility to manage our resources sensibly. We haven’t developed warp speed in real life, and neither are tachyons thought to be possible. Nevertheless, the example Star Trek gave us decades ago has given way to other inventions, including ion propulsion. It just isn’t enough to send a manned vehicle between the stars quickly enough.
Even so, it certainly seems likely that we will keep learning about space, the formation of life, and what is yet to be discovered out there. The Dawn mission is of particular interest to me; it sends spacecrafts to alien planets to study the formation of life, and to me this study seems to resemble similar studies on the prehistory of Earth itself. This is what I mean by blending environmental with space science. Perhaps one day spacecrafts like Dawn will discover somewhere with life, even simple life, upon some surface and will be able to tell us some important secrets to life in the universe.
Ion propulsion is, currently, the best way we can go further than we have before. Not only does it have the potential to shorten space trips, but it is also more practical than chemical propulsion. NASA is using the ion propulsion system not only to send spacecraft far from home, but they’re also a more efficient method of keeping crafts in orbit. And it is with this system, in all likelihood, that a craft will be send on a data-gathering mission to orbit two planets in a distant star system, not unlike the more recent and closer-to-home Dawn mission.
So if you were looking for dangers of ion technology, there’s one possible danger. As someone lacking in expertise on this subject, it’s impossible to know if the phasers in Star Trek would truly work in real life as they do on the show. Could the technology to shoot plasma the same way it propels ships be developed? How might it effect a human? Hopefully, we can stick to the message of benevolence that is at the heart of Star Trek, and never develop plasma weapons. But it may take some resistance against those aggressive powers in the world that would value such a thing, if present circumstances is anything to go by.
We must remain curious, but above all empathetic, if we’re to have the best influence on the world. It is up to our scientists to lead the way on this.