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I'm currently in a class for aircraft propulsion and I became interested in Ion propulsion. It seems there hasn't been many developments for a few years as far as viable aircraft utilizing the technology. To be clear, I'm thinking strictly of a small UAV type aircraft.

From what I understand the thrust produced by various ion propulsion systems is very low and that's the reason they don't work very well on Earth. However, after digging into it a bit I got to wondering if it could be modified to work in the Martian Atmosphere?

To take it further, could an ABEP engine that utilizes CO2 be fitted to work in the Atmosphere? I saw a design for a propeller UAV to fly on Mars, the MAGGIE aircraft, and if the design of the aircraft is there, could the propulsion be changed?

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    $\begingroup$ How is "electronic" propulsion also "air breathing"? Because it spins a propeller? Or needs air to generate the electricity? Or something else? $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Mar 5 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ There's a plan to test a spacecraft propulsion system that uses gases gathered from the upper atmosphere as propellant with a solar powered engine to continually re-boost a satellite. The question is could a similar propulsion system work for a Mars aircraft. My immediate reaction is no, I can't see enough thrust being produced to offset drag, but I don't have the means to put that into numbers. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Mar 6 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ @RalphJ They are air-breathing because the system intakes air as the craft flies and that air is ionized and propelled out the back to generate thrust. Like a ramjet engine, just electric instead of using conventional propellant. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ @GdD Are you referring to the ESAs project or something different? If you have a link id love to check it out. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ ESA has been looking at this for awhile, now DARPA is in on it too @thewanderingsophist. theregister.com/2024/02/29/satellite_air_propulsion $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Mar 7 at 13:06

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Possibly However the martian atmosphere is absurdly thin, 80x less dense than Earth. The Martian helicopter "Ingenuity" required larger rotor surface area, and had to spin At FAR higher rpm. ABEP uses upper atmospheric gases as a propulsion fluid medium. Adopting a design to use martian atmosphere is tricky, as the atmosphere at high altitudes is already.... thin.

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  • $\begingroup$ "uses upper atmospheric gases as a propulsion fluid medium." I am not sure how accurate it is but I see numbers about the Martian atmosphere being similar to Earths atmosphere somewhere around 35km. Which aircraft have been developed to fly at such an altitude? Also, im assuming they built off of ingenuity to develop, nasa.gov/general/… that. Im just curious if propeller is the only viable solution. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7 at 12:56
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Unlikely. The gravity on Mars is only less than Earth's gravity by about a factor of 3. If ion propulsion were practicable on Mars it should at least be possible on Earth as a proof of concept.

A spacecraft is a different story. Since spacecraft don't have to constantly fight against gravity it's possible to do a lot with very small amounts of thrust integrated over long periods of time.

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ABEP is still a new concept and the viability of collecting fuel to then produce net thrust would be very low. Supplemental fuel source for a single use case only (i.e. hanging out in the upper atmosphere). Also electron propulsion motors have burn times in the order of months. It would be very hard to do this unless you're travelling a straight'ish line in a vacuum.

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