The is a picture of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Gravity and steady-state Ocean Circulation Exploroer (GOCE) launched in March.
That beautiful blue artists rendition (photo courtesy of ESA's website) is the trail of ions produced by QinetiQ's T5 ion thruster. And forgive me for sounding a little biased here, but it is just my excitement for this program and the fact that QinetiQ has an association with it. I don't know who works for QinetiQ, but everything I have seen come out of that company has been extraordinary, and this is no exception.
SAE's Aerospace magazine has an article (written by Jean L. Broge) about QinetiQ's ion engines, which provoked this blog post. I don't want to plagerize the article, so please read it to get the details about the project.
To summarize: The GOCE spacecraft is a part of ESA's living planet program and is designed to measure the Earth's gravitational field. It orbits at the outer reaches of the atmosphere, about 260 to 280km and therefore does experience disturbances from atmospheric drag. QinetiQ's ion engines must counteract those disturbances in order for the gravitational sensors to function properly. Here's the part of the article that really grabbed my attention.
"This mission would not be possible without QinetiQ's electric engines," said Mary Carver, Managing Director of QinetiQ's Integrated Systems business. "Our space engineers have overcome a challenge that has been likened to compensating for the impact of an insect landing on the windscreen of a car traveling at 100 mph."How would you like your cruise control to be able to do that?