In 1904, the magazine ‘Nature’ announced the achievement of two brothers who managed to get an object to rise from the ground for twelve seconds after being launched downhill in North California.
115 years later, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have reported the successful flight – for nine seconds – of a small airplane propelled by an ion engine. This experimental aircraft doesn’t require an engine or use standard combustion techniques, and although it is only currently capable of flying at 47 centimetres from the ground, the sight of this new machine flying offers a glimpse into the future of cleaner, quieter aircrafts. But can you really imagine a future with spaceships similar to those featured in “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” flying silently and with no moving parts?
Historically, airplanes have been propelled using motors with mobile components (such as controllers or turbines) and are powered by fossil fuels. An ‘ionocraft’ is an aircraft that uses an electrical electrohydrodynamic  (EHD) phenomenon to produce thrust in the air without requiring any combustion or moving parts. The creation of propulsion using electrical forces to generate an ion current was proposed years ago as an alternative method of flight, but prior to MIT’s ion engine, never before had an airplane taken to the air using an electrodynamic device.
The first successful prototype, uninspiringly named ‘Version Two’, uses wires at the front of its wing which carry 600 watts of electricity at 40,000 volts. The current gives a positive charge to nitrogen molecules near the wire, which then flow backwards towards a second wire at rear of the wing, providing energy to neutral air molecules in its path. As the neutral molecules travel back from the wing, they create thrust equivalent to that created by a conventional jet engine.
The solid-state prototype discussed has a wingspan of five meters, and even with its battery pack and high voltage transformer fitted, weighs a mere 2.45 kilograms. Being light-weight is a key component in getting the plane to fly, and the researchers are now focused on ways to increase the speed and range of the aircraft.
Thanks to this new discovery it is possible that within the next few years we will begin to see this development implemented in drones as they continue to become a regular presence in our skies. We may also be able to design new types of airplanes and spaceships, which allow us to traverse the skies and, potentially, space.. “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
. Science fiction movie taken to the cinema on 1977 by George Lucas.
. Science fiction television series created on 1966.
. It is the study of the motions of ionized particles or molecules and their interactions with electric fields and the surrounding fluid.
. Neil Armstrong sentence when he jumps into the moon.
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