An anonymous reader writes: The spectacle of a booster rocket lifting off a launch pad atop a mass of brilliant flames and billowing smoke is an iconic image of the Space Age. Such powerful chemical rockets are needed to break the bonds of Earth’s gravity and send spacecraft into orbit. But once a vehicle has progressed beyond low-earth orbit (LEO) chemical rockets are not necessarily the best way to get around outer space. That’s because chemical propulsion systems require such large quantities of fuel to generate high speeds, there is little room for payload.
As a result rocket scientists are increasingly turning to electric rockets, which accelerate propellants out the back end using solar-powered electromagnetic fields rather than chemical reactions. The electric rockets use so much less propellant that the entire spacecraft can be much more compact, which enables them to scale down the original launch boosters.