This artist concept shows NASA Dawn spacecraft arriving at the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn travels through space using a technology called ion propulsion, with ions glowing with blue light are accelerated out of an engine, giving the spacecraft thrust.



NASA/JPL-Caltech


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NASA/JPL-Caltech


This artist concept shows NASA Dawn spacecraft arriving at the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn travels through space using a technology called ion propulsion, with ions glowing with blue light are accelerated out of an engine, giving the spacecraft thrust.



NASA/JPL-Caltech

Contrary to sci-fi depictions in shows like Iron Man and Star Wars, getting from point A to point B in space is a tough engineering problem. NPR Science Correspondent Geoff Brumfiel, with help from scientist Naia Butler-Craig, explains how space propulsion actually works, and why some new technologies might be needed to get humans to Mars and beyond.

Follow Geoff Brumfiel and Short Wave co-host Emily Kwong on Twitter. Email the show at [email protected]

This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, fact-checked by Indi Khera and edited by Gisele Grayson.