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The worldwide effort to decarbonize energy systems has set the stage for an era of electrically driven mobility. Cars, buses, heavy trucks, and trains are increasingly switching to electrical propulsion. Drones are already in the air and plans are underway for electric flying taxis to revolutionize personal and on-demand transportation systems.1 Denmark and Sweden are preparing to replace their domestic fleet of airplanes with fossil-fuel-free versions by 2030, when all-electric 186-seat passenger airplanes will enter into service. Before then, smaller, 100-seat Wright Spirit electric airplanes2 are due out in 2026.
Electrical pump-feed rocket engines have also made their way into launch systems. Indeed, five years ago Rocket Lab used that technology to deliver to orbit a commercial payload of several satellites. Many small satellites already use electric propulsion thrusters in space, with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation being the most prominent example. (See references 3 and 4 to learn more about thruster designs and applications on various types of spacecraft.)
Yet many more space assets—from small probes and satellites to large spacecraft—continue to rely on conventional chemical-based propulsion. For now, the electrification of in-space mobility systems lags behind that of Earth systems. But that may soon change.
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