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Engage the plasma drive, Mars here we come

By Malcolm King - posted Wednesday, 22 December 2010

President Obama’s call earlier this year to send space craft to Mars by 2015 is good news for space enthusiasts but more so for Australian physicist Dr Christine Charles who has invented a new type of plasma rocket drive.

This is the supercharger of all space engines and Dr Charles and a team of physicists at the Australian National University developed the first prototype.

One would think that this would be a major news story in Australia - and ABC Radio did a small story a couple of years ago - but there it lay. This is not unusual in science reporting in Australia.


While her invention potentially changes space travel, much of the media still focuses on TV visuals, the trivial or things that go "bang" (think of the Mythbusters). It’s as if science per se is not interesting unless things explode.

Lets have a look at Dr Charles’ Helicon Double Layer Thruster (HDLT) engine.

Currently is would take an astronaut about 14 months to reach Mars and return to Earth. With the HDLT it would take three to four months - cutting 10 months off a round trip.

Her ion propulsion drive rocket is safer and cheaper than any other similar design and works with a variety of propellants, including carbon dioxide (the main constituent of Mars’ atmosphere). When travelling in deep space, surrounded by radiation and in zero gravity, velocity is everything.

Her discovery had its roots in jazz. Back in 1999 she was attending a jazz course at ANU. She had been thinking of harmonics and how the same notes on different scales beat together.

“I went back to the lab thinking about harmonics. I started to explore how plasmas (energy) could be used and I discovered, under certain conditions, a spontaneous double layer of energy appears within the plasma and accelerate ions that passed though it,” Dr Charles said.


This electric double layer is the electrostatic equivalent of a sheer drop. The plasma ions passing through the double layer experience a sudden and very forceful acceleration in the same way water does as it flows over a cliff. The same double layer physics are behind the awesome light show of the aurora. In this case, the charged particles of the solar wind enter the Earth’s atmosphere at the poles.

While the HDLT has a fraction of the power of the rockets that launch the space shuttle, it uses far less fuel and gets more thrust as a ration of the fuel it burns, making it ideal for interplanetary missions.

So you’d think what with Obama’s statement re a return to the Mars missions, the fact that Dr Charles is an Australian, the sheer velocity the HDLT can develop and the curious "jazz" angle of the original conception, that this would be a lay down misere news story.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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