Somewhere, Senator Palpatine is smiling his thin-lipped smile of approval at the news that NASA has already improved on the design of the TIE fighters with their latest spacecraft. Why have Twin Ion Engines, after all, when you can get there faster with three? NASA's secret Sith-like inspiration for our intergalactic future awaits you under the jump.

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Dawn, NASA's largest planetary spacecraft to date, is based upon a new form of propulsion that's surprisingly familiar to nerds: ion propulsion. According to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory chief engineer, Marc Rayman, what that means is that solar power captured by two massive panels ionize the craft's xenon fuel, and accelerate the ship. Slowly.

"It takes Dawn four days to go from zero to 60 miles per hour; that doesn't exactly evoke the image of a hot rod," Rayman said with a laugh. "I call it accelerating with patience. But, over time, the effort builds up. Over the long haul, we will be able to achieve fantastically high speeds."

Try up to 25,000 mph. Ion propulsion is a much more continual thrust โ€” five years in total for Dawn โ€” than conventional chemical propulsion and, he added, is more than 10 times as efficient.

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The inspiration for Dawn's ion propulsion? The desire to one-up Darth Vader, according to Rayman:

Alluding to Dawn's three ion engines, Rayman said, "We're doing the Star Wars' TIE fighters one better," and added, "The joy of turning that from science fiction to science fact has been very exciting to me."


Next on the agenda: Spacesuits that look like Boba Fett.

Star Wars tech now headed to asteroids [Ventura County Star]

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