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China's upcoming Tiangong space station's first module will be equipped with an ion propulsion system which will greatly improve energy efficiency and could slash journey times to Mars, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reports.  

Such thrusters have been used since the 1970s; however, the Tiangong's core module is set to become the first crewed spaceship propelled by ion drives. China is betting big on ion thrusters and intends to develop them on a far greater scale">for its deep-space missions.

The space station’s core Tianhe module, which will welcome its first astronauts later this month if all goes to plan, is propelled by four ion thrusters, which utilize electricity to accelerate ions as a type of propulsion.

When compared to chemical propulsion, which keeps the International Space Station (ISS) in orbit, ion drives are much more efficient. According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the ISS's thrusters require four tons of rocket fuel to keep it afloat for a year, whereas">ion thrusters would require only 882 pounds (400kg) to do the same.


Today's rocket technology would take a crew aboard a spaceship large enough to carry fuel and other supplies to Mars in more than eight months. However, according to some calculations by researchers, a vehicle powered by a 200-megawatt ion drive array may reduce the journey time to 39 days, allowing the mission to employ smaller vessels or carry more supplies.

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