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Xenon The Noble Gas
Xenon is one of heavier Noble Gases
Screen capture from ChemicalElements.com
The noble gases are the orange column on the right of the periodic table. These are chemically inert. Which means they're not corrosive. This makes them easier to store or use.
Low Ionization Energy
Per this graph is from Wikipedia, Xenon has a lower ionization energy than the lighter noble gases.
Ionization energy for xenon (Xe) is 1170.4 kJ/mol. Ionization for krypton (Kr) is 1350.8 kJ/mol. Looks like about a 15% difference, right?
But a mole of the most common isotope of xenon is 131.3 grams, while a mole of krypton is 82.8 grams. So it takes 181% or nearly twice as much juice to ionize a gram of krypton.
Likewise it takes nearly 4.5 times as much juice to ionize a gram of argon.
The reaction mass must be ionized before it can be pushed by a magnetic field. Xenon takes less juice to ionize. So more of an ion engine's power source can be devoted to imparting exhaust velocity to reaction mass.
Big Atoms, Molar Weight
Low molar weight makes for good ISP but poor thrust. And pathetic thrust is the Achilles heel of Hall Thrusters and other ion engines. The atomic weight of xenon is 131.29 (see periodic table at the top of the page).
Tiny hydrogen molecules are notorious for leaking past the tightest seals. Big atoms have a harder time squeezing through tight seals. Big whopper atoms like xenon can be stored more easily.
Around 160 K, xenon is a liquid with a density of about 3 grams per cubic centimeter. In contrast, oxygen is liquid below 90 K and a density of 1.1. So xenon is a much milder cryogen than oxygen and more than double (almost triple) the density.
Ordinary atmosphere is 1.2 kg/m3 while xenon is about 5.9 kg/m3 at the same pressure. Xenon has about 4.8 times the density of regular air.
By volume earth's atmosphere is .0000087% xenon. 4.8 * .000000087 = 4.2e-7. Earth's atmosphere is estimated to mass 5e18 kg. By my arithmetic there is about 2e12 kg xenon in earth's atmosphere. In other words, about 2 billion tonnes.
Page 29 of the Keck asteroid retrieval proposal calls for 12.9 tonnes of xenon. Naysayers were aghast: "13 tonnes is almost a third of global xenon production for year! It would cause a shortage." Well, production is determined by demand. With 2 billion tonnes in our atmosphere, 13 tonnes is a drop in the bucket. We throw away a lot of xenon when we liquify oxygen and nitrogen from the atmosphere.
In fact ramping up production of xenon would lead to economies of scale and likely cause prices to drop. TildalWave makes such an argument in this Space Stack Exchange answer to the question "How much does it cost to fill an ion thruster with xenon for a spacecraft propulsion system?" TildalWave argues ramped up production could result in a $250,000 per tonne price. That's about a four fold cut in the going market price of $1.2 million per tonne.
If you examined the periodic table and ionization tables above you might have noticed there's a heavier noble gas that has an even lower ionization energy: Radon a.k.a. Rn. Radon is radioactive. Radon 222, the most stable isotope, has a half life of less than 4 days. If I count the zeros on the Radon page correctly, our atmosphere is about 1e-19% radon -- what you'd expect for something with such a short half life. Besides being rare, it wouldn't last long in storage.
Scott Manley did a great video on xenon.
Where xenon excels
Great for moving between heliocentric orbits
Ion thrusters can get 10 to 80 km/s exhaust velocity, 30 km/s is a typical exhaust velocity. That's about 7 times as good as hydrogen/oxygen bipropellent which can do 4.4 km/s. But, as mentioned, ion thrust and acceleration are small. It takes a looong burn to get the delta V. To get good acceleration, an ion propelled vehicle needs good alpha. In my opinion, 1 millimeter/second2 is doable with near future power sources.
If the vehicle's acceleration is a healthy fraction of local gravity field, the accelerations resemble the impulsive burns to enter or exit an elliptical transfer orbit. But if the acceleration is a tiny fraction of the local gravity field, the path is a slow spiral.
Earth's distance from the sun, the sun's gravity is around 6 millimeters/second2. At Mars, sun's gravity is about 2.5 mm/s2 and in the asteroid belt 1 mm/s2 or less. Ion engines are okay for moving between heliocentric orbits, especially as you get out as far as Mars and The Main Belt.
Sucks for climbing in and out of planetary gravity wells
At 300 km altitude, Earth's local gravity field is about 9000 millimeters/second2. About 9 thousand times the 1 mm/s2 acceleration a plausible ion vehicle can do. At the altitude of low Mars orbit, gravity is about 3400 millimeters/sec2. So slow gradual spirals rather than elliptical transfer orbits. There's also no Oberth benefit.
At 1 mm/sec2 acceleration, it would take around 7 million seconds (80 days) to climb in or out of earth's gravity well and about 3 million seconds (35 days) for the Mars well.
Mark Adler's rendition of an ion spiral
where the thruster's acceleration is 1/000 that of local gravity at the start.
The general rule of thumb for calculating the delta V needed for low thrust spirals: subtract speed of destination orbit from speed of departure orbit.
Speed of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is about 7.7 km/s. But you don't have to go to C3 = 0, getting past earth's Hill Sphere suffices. So about 7 km/s to climb from LEO to the edge of earth's gravity well.
It takes about 5.6 km/s to get from earth's 1 A.U. heliocentric orbit to Mars' 1.52 A.U. heliocentric orbit.
Speed of Low Mars Orbit (LMO) is about 3.4 km/s. About 3 km/s from the edge of Mars' Hill Sphere to LMO.
7 + 5.6 + 3 = 15.6. A total of 15.6 km/s to get from LEO to LMO.
With the Oberth benefit it takes about 5.6 km/s to get from LEO to LMO. The Oberth savings is almost 10 km/s.
10 km/s is nothing to sneeze at, even if exhaust velocity is 30 km/s. Climbing all the way up and down planetary gravity wells wth ion engines costs substantial delta V as well as a lot of time.
Elevators and chemical for planet wells, ion for heliocentric
So in my daydreams I imagine infrastructure at the edge of planetary gravity wells. Ports where ion driven driven vehicles arrive and leave as they move about the solar system. Then transportation from the well's edge down the well would be accomplished by chemical as well as orbital elevators.
Other possible sources of ion propellent.
Another possible propellent for ion engines is argon. Also a noble gas. Ionization energy isn't as good as xenon, but not bad. Mars atmosphere is about 2% argon. Mars is next door to The Main Belt. I like to imagine Mars will supply much of the propellent for moving about the Main Belt.