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Please watch the reportage about small plasma thruster invented by Oleg Batishchev, Russian scholar employed by MIT, a principal research scientist in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The new system, called the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster Engine, may revolutionize space travel, for example, propel humans and machines forward to explore Mars. Mini-Helicon, which is the first rocket to run on nitrogen (the most abundant gas in our atmosphere) is an alternative to the rockets maneuvering most satellites today.

Batishchev told that in summer 2008 his team, for fun, built a plasma rocket based on a glass bottle (a stand-in for the quartz tube) and an aluminum can (the radio-frequency antenna), both of which previously held soft drinks. The team's prototype fits in a large shoe box and this simple design worked. Since then, 12 MIT students have worked on the Mini-Helicon. The nitrogen is pumped through a quartz tube wrapped in a coiled antenna and surrounded by magnets. Radio frequency power, transmitted to the nitrogen from the antenna, turns the gas into plasma, or electrically charged gas. The magnets help produce the plasma, guide and accelerate it through the system. As a result, the plasma beam exhausted from the tube can eventually move a craft through space. Although electric rockets offer much lower thrust levels than their chemical cousins, they can even­tually enable a spacecraft to reach greater speeds for the same amount of propellant. Ultimately, the efficient use of propellant makes it valuable for deep-space missions.

This new non-chemical, shoebox-sized technology has the advantages of being significantly cheaper (as it could slash fuel consumption by 10 times that of conventional systems), lighter, more fuel-efficient way to give satellites the boost they need. Batishchev realizes, however, that it could be years before the technology can be used commercially, in part due to the Air Force Research Laboratory cut off funding of this work, but largely due to the long certification process.

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