China’s Space Station is Powered by Ion Thrusters

China is betting big on electric spacecraft propulsion. A trip to Mars could be cut down from eight months to just 39 days.

China’s first module of its upcoming Tiangong space station makes use of ion drives, technology that could vastly cut down the time it takes to travel to Mars — and greatly reduce the amount of fuel needed to make that trip, as the South China Morning Post reports.

The module, called Tianhe and launched in late April, is powered by four ion thrusters that use electricity to accelerate ions as a form of propulsion. In fact, the module could soon become the first spacecraft in history to transport humans using the technology, according to SCMP.

Ion drives are orders of magnitude more efficient compared to chemical propulsion. To keep the International Space Station in orbit for a year, the thrusters consume four tons of rocket fuel. With ion thrusters, it’d need just 400 kilograms to stay in orbit for the same amount of time, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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