In the far future, I like to think we'll visit other planets. Our current level of technology is obviously a limiting factor, as are the resource requirements for powering engines fast enough to get us to other parts of the universe. Now imagine you're on your space ship, travelling to Bernard's Star and you run out of gas. What could be more convenient than cracking open the fuel tank, taking a leak and getting back under way?
The Australian National University announced this week that construction of its "pioneering plasma thruster" and the facility in which to build it, has commenced at Mt Stromlo Observatory near Canberra. The project is being funded by the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, which has chipped in a cool $3.1 million.
What makes this plasma drive different to its competitors is the fact it can run on "any type of propellent", according professor Rod Boswell, chief researcher at ANU's Space Plasma Power and Propulsion Laboratory.
"Any propellent" also happens to include "piss". As the Register writes:
"In the International Space Station, there’s a system that extracts water from urine, known as the 'Russian piss-presser'. The result ends up with a pH around one –- we could easily use that. "Xenon is expensive — why not use what’s already there?" he added.
Sounds great! If a little gross. The engine doesn't have moving parts and consists of "just a cylinder". As the only parts that do touch the propellent are made of ceramic or glass, it's incredibly durable, a critical quality for space flight.
If and when the engine does reach production, it'll be used in satellites first, which makes it a bit difficult to refuel via, uh, natural means. But it's good to know the old bladder will do in a pinch, as long as you don't need to top up in a vacuum.