Ion engines could power the spy planes of the future

Credit: jpl

It was only last year that NASA reported the development of a real world impulse drive, one that runs on dilithium crystals no less. And there was much rejoicing. But the Star Wars vs Star Trek debate knows no bounds. None, I tell you.

This year — in fact this very week — researchers at MIT have announced that they are developing a powerful "Ionic Wind" engine, capable of outperforming conventional jet engines. This is not a new concept, as any Star Wars fan knows. For crying out loud, the TIE in "TIE Fighter" stands for Twin Ion Engine. Ionic wind power has also been around for a while in the real world, but that's beside the point.

What really matters is that, hot on the heels of a Star Trek engine, we have news of a Star Wars engine as well. And this real life Ion Drive is no slouch either. Your average jet engine generates about 2N/kW (newtons per kilowatt) of thrust. In comparison, the ionic thruster (as it has been termed) has been demonstrated as capable of a whopping 110 N/kW of thrust. Well, that's just plain more. But the benefits of ionic thrusters don't end there. As well as being more powerful, these engines are entirely silent and invisible to infrared imaging.

While this does mean that we might miss out on the famous TIE Fighter scream, it'll come in handy for stealth aircraft. You know, the planes the CIA likes to paint black. Another spyplane-esque benefit of ionic thrusters is that they seem to function much more efficiently at slower speeds, enabling long-term recon missions with plenty of getaway power when push comes to shove.

Just like NASA's impulse drive, MIT's Ion Drive isn't quite ready for implementation yet. I guess we'll all have to wait until it's up and running before we pass judgement on who's won this particular battle in the ongoing debate over which sci-fi franchise truly is the best.

MIT, via Gizmodo

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