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Does this new rocket engine threaten to fill the atmosphere with mercury?

That's the worry about this Apollo Constellation engine.

At Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Ben Elgin writes a story with the scary title This Silicon Valley Space Startup Could Lace the Atmosphere With Mercury. He then describes a company that is “trying to develop better, cheaper propulsion systems for a new generation of satellites.”

Apollo Fusion has designed its propulsion systems to use mercury as a fuel, according to four industry insiders with direct knowledge of its technology. NASA began moving away from mercury in the 1970s, owing to concerns about contamination on the ground.

Lloyd with Ion Drive engineGlobe and Mail/ Lloyd Alter with ion drive engine/via

This is a subject that I know a little bit about; I built an ion drive engine when I was 17 and won a few science fairs with it. The mercury is not actually the fuel; this is an electric engine. It works like every other rocket: you throw something out the back at high speed and, thanks to Newton, that pushes your rocket forward. In this case, it's mercury, ionized and shot out at high velocity.

My engine was a pipe with a coil where the mercury vapour was ionized, then a series of mesh screens that attracted and accelerated the mercury ions and sent them on their way. It only works in a really serious vacuum; you can see the mercury diffusion pump behind the bell jar containing the engine. I never got to fire it up at the science fair because they thought I would poison everyone.

That's the problem. Mercury is really heavy and easily ionized, so it is the perfect propellant for an ion engine. But it is really toxic. Elgin goes through all of the things mercury does to people, how it is a powerful neurotoxin, how the USA has signed the Minimata treaty to reduce emissions.

Elgin goes on to do the math and figures that if Apollo launched a thousand satellites, each with 20 kg of mercury, it could put 20 metric tons of mercury into space, which he says would all eventually drift back into the atmosphere.

Mercury emitted at those altitudes would mostly remain in the atmosphere and migrate down over several years, eventually returning to the oceans and soil, says Steve Brooks, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. “It’s a very heavy element that is not going to easily escape the Earth’s gravity,” Brooks says. “Almost all of the mercury that you put up there will find its way back down.”

There are a couple of problems with this. The biggest is that most of the articles about this engine talk about xenon as the fuel, so it might not even run on mercury. The other is that a little molecule of mercury vapour, even a heavy one like this, won't have much drag and it might take a very long time for it to find its way back down. It isn't going to be raining mercury.

I think Bloomberg's Ben Elgin is being a little overwrought. Nonetheless, putting even a couple of tonnes of mercury into orbit is probably a bad idea; perhaps they should stick with xenon. In my science fair project I speculated that it might be better to put a big funnel on the front of the space ship, collect dust, ionize it and shoot it out the back. Maybe they should look into that idea.

That's the worry about this Apollo Constellation engine.