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Avoiding Incidental Ion Drive damage to Following Vehicles?


Is it possible for a large enough Ion Drive with enough power to be dangerous to other objects "down wind" of the vehicle, even at long distances (100+km)? As I understand it, ion drives accelerate ions at high speeds, and hypothetically this appears as if it would would have dangerous consequences for vehicles downwind. However, this post seems to indicate that while the long term effects can be bad, it's not exactly equivalent to being hit with atomic meteorites. Still, in a realistic sci-fi world, it appears as if this would cause issues.

  • Assume that engineers have solved the erosion on the drive itself, but no such protection exists outside the drive on other vehicles.

  • No power limits, but in my mind I was thinking more of modern nuclear power plant equivalent power generation, 500MW

Why should this post be closed?


I suspect there are two main points that would need addressing for a proper answer to this question. First, how tightly constrained is the beam being projected by the engine? Second, how much force would be required to present a "danger" to the object behind the engine? For example, it would be a very different matter if the dispersion is, say, 0.1°/km and the rearward object can take a force of 1 kN, than if the corresponding values are 0.01°/km and 1 N. ‭aCVn‭ 3 months ago

@aCVn for for the first I'm assuming whatever the beam would be if you scaled up current technology. I don't know how the beam changes if you accelerate ions faster, and looking at the exhaust of an ion drive, it appears to be a kind of oven flame/ cone shape. For the second I'm confused, I don't know what degree/km is supposed to represent,and I'm not sure what the rest is trying to say. ‭Cazadorro‭ 3 months ago

I'm not quite sure what I was thinking about when I wrote °/km; it should almost certainly be just °. The intent there is to establish the colinearity of the particles in the exhaust, which will allow calculating the area over which the exhaust has spread out at a given distance. The second part is simply meant to define what "dangerous" means in terms of force on the rearward object, on the assumption that the total thrust of the engine can be reasoned about in terms of force per area. ‭aCVn‭ 3 months ago

okay co linearity of particles should match that of current tech scaled up, or current tech with higher particle acceleration (though I think it should still look roughly the same?). By dangerous I mean "particles ripping through the hull of the ship on a long journey eroding the hull" like as discussed the in link, not as "enough force to push the ship off course". ‭Cazadorro‭ 3 months ago

1 answer


NASA's Fundamentals of Electric Propulsion: Ion and Hall Thrusters by Goebel and Katz, JPL, March 2008 discusses the issue of current ion drive beam focus limits (along with many other matters relevant to ion drives).

Section 5.3.3, page 207:

Another significant grid issue is alignment of the grid apertures. The ion trajectories shown in Fig. 5-6 assumed perfect alignment of the screen and accel grid apertures, and the resultant trajectories are then axi-symmetric along the aperture centerline.

Figure 5-6(b), page 203, shows a well-aligned ion drive, with optimal perveance. In that case, the beam appears to diverge at a rate of approximately $\frac{1 \times 10^{-4}}{5 \times 10^{-3}}$. Therefore, assuming a point exhaust for simplicity, at a distance of 100 km the exhaust will have spread over a radius of approximately $100 ~\text{km} \times \frac{1 \times 10^{-4}}{5 \times 10^{-3}} = 2 ~\text{km}$.

Assuming that the beam's lack of focus is symmetric around the engine's long axis, we can estimate the area covered by particles ejected from the engine as a circle of this radius.

The area of a circle of radius 2 km is a little less than 13 km2.

So, at 100 km distance, the total force of the engine is spread out over approximately 13 km2.

Now here's the tricky part. Current ion drives are in the single to tens of kilowatts class (NASA's HiPEP "is focused on the development of a 20-50 kW class ion thruster" with a specific impulse in the range 6000-9000 seconds), but you are postulating a 500 MW ion drive with unspecified specific impulse. That's quite a lot of scaling up, but I'll make it easy for myself by assuming that we can meet current state of the art at such a massively scaled up power level, and that the specific impulse will be similar to NASA's HiPEP drive. You can substitute your own values below if you wish.

Wikipedia indicates that the thrust force of an ion drive, in Newton, can be calculated as $$ F = 2\cfrac{\eta P}{g I_{sp}} $$ where $\eta$ is the engine efficiency, $P$ is the power in watts, $g$ is the gravitational acceleration (9.81 m/s2 on Earth), and $I_{sp}$ is the specific impulse in seconds. Assuming a 100% efficiency (worst case for the rearward object), and a specific impulse of 10,000 seconds, that gives $$ F = 2 \cfrac{500,000,000 ~\text{W}}{9.81 ~\text{m/s}^2 \times 10,000 ~\text{s}} \approx 10,200 ~\text{N} $$

10,200 N is approximately 1,040 kgf, but again, at 100 km distance behind the engine, this will be spread over an area of about 13 km2.

The force exerted by the engine on the object 100 km rearward will thus be approximately $$ \cfrac{1,040 ~\text{kgf}}{\pi 2,000^2 ~\text{m}^2} \approx 0.00008276 \cfrac{\text{kgf}}{\text{m}^2} $$ as compared to Earth sea-level atmospheric pressure of (remember that Pa = N/m2, and again g = 9.81 m/s2) $$ 101,325 \cfrac{\text{N}}{\text{m}^2} \approx 10,329 \cfrac{\text{kgf}}{\text{m}^2} $$

This is a difference of approximately $\frac{10,329}{0.00008276} \approx 1.25 \times 10^8$ times between the atmospheric pressure from inside the rearward spacecraft, and the engine exhaust pressure from outside it.

Even if they are running a low-pressure atmosphere (say, approximately 20% of Earth sea level pressure but pure oxygen, as the early US space missions in the 1960s did), I really don't think the captain of the rearward ship needs to worry about any significant damage. If the captain of the rearward ship does worry, all that's needed is to back off a little further.


This seems to be missing the point. It's not about pressure felt by the second ship, but about colliding with all those particles at relativistic speeds. A good ion drive would send very small amounts of material out the back at very high speeds, the closer to the speed of light, the better. ‭Olin Lathrop‭ 2 months ago

On the other hand, this answer is also neglecting space-charge effects which will cause the beam divergence to grow after leaving the confines of the engine. If I find time I'll do a BoTE estimate. ‭dmckee‭ 2 months ago

Also of note, the preference for higher exhaust velocity is predicated on having sufficient power available. You get more $\Delta v$ per gram of propellant from higher exhaust velocities, but it takes more energy per unit $\Delta v$ (and of course a photon drive represents the ultimate in this trade-off). With chemical propellants that cost is paid in preparing the propellants, but for a ion drive you pay when you run the engine. ‭dmckee‭ 2 months ago

@OlinLathrop @dmckee If you have what you feel is a better answer, by all means please post it as an answer. ‭aCVn‭ 2 months ago

This answer is great, and would still serve as a useful post if it stayed as is, it provides lots of useful information, but @OlinLathrop is correct. Merely applying pressure or force on the second ship isn't the issue I was worried about (though maybe I should be if it is scaled up further orders of magnitude), its the stripping of material cause by high speed particle collisions with the hull. ‭Cazadorro‭ 2 months ago

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