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article imageForget Mars—NASA ion engine aims for outer planets, deep space

By Jordan Howell     Jun 30, 2013 in Science
Five years ago NASA began testing an ion engine prototype at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland—48,000 hours later it’s still running and will set a world record for the longest propulsion test in history when deactivated later this month.
According to a NASA press release, the spacecraft propulsion system is part of NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) Project and utilizes what is known as solar electric propulsion, where a spacecraft’s thrusters use solar power to accelerate xenon propellant up to speeds of 90,000 mph.
The ion engines are also extremely efficient, using about 870 kilograms of propellant over the past five and a half years. A rocket engine under comparable circumstances would use more than 10,000 kilograms of propellant.
“An ion thruster produces small levels of thrust relative to chemical thrusters, but does so at higher specific impulse (or higher exhaust velocities), which means that an ion thruster has a fuel efficiency of 10-12 times greater than a chemical thruster. The higher the rocket's specific impulse (fuel efficiency), the farther the spacecraft can go with a given amount of fuel,” according to the Glenn Research Center’s webpage on the thrusters.
“Given that an ion thruster produces small levels of thrust relative to chemical thrusters, it needs to operate in excess of 10,000 hours to slowly accelerate the spacecraft to speeds necessary to reach the asteroid belt or beyond.”
Caption: A NASA Glenn engineer performs verification tests of the imaging diagnostic suite that allo...
Caption: A NASA Glenn engineer performs verification tests of the imaging diagnostic suite that allowed for periodic assessment of the components on the NEXT engine during it's multi-year test. After the final check of all the systems, the vacuum door was closed in June 2005 and has not been opened since. Credit: Courtesy NASA
Courtesy NASA
The duration test is set to terminate in the near future as the ion engine has surpassed the expectations of agency scientists.
“We will voluntarily terminate this test at the end of this month, with the thruster fully operational. Life and performance have exceeded the requirements for any anticipated science mission,” said Michael J. Patterson, principal investigator for NEXT at Glenn, in a press release.
NASA has been operating ion engines since 1998 when the agency launched the Deep Space 1 spacecraft to perform flybys of the asteroid Braille and the Comet Borrelly. Although Deep Space 1 was deactivated in 2001, NASA continues to use ion engines in many of its space probes, including the Dawn mission which is set to rendezvous with the Solar System’s largest asteroid Ceres by February 2015.
According to the press release, this technology could be used for a variety of missions identified in NASA's Planetary Science Decadal Survey.
“NASA-developed next generation high power solar electric propulsion systems will enhance our nation's ability to perform future science and human exploration missions,” said Julie Van Kleeck, Aerojet Rocketdyne's vice president for space advanced programs, in a press release.
Of the missions currently under consideration by the Planetary Science Decadal Survey are expeditions to Europa, Jupiter’s moon long thought to harbor liquid oceans underneath the frozen surface, and Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon of Saturn which was named “the most habitable spot beyond Earth in the Solar System for life as we know it” by NASA scientists at an Enceladus Focus Group Conference in 2011.
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