NASA has awarded a three year contract worth $67 million to Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop electrically powered thrusters for deep space travel. “Work performed under the contract could potentially increase spaceflight transportation fuel efficiency by 10 times over current chemical propulsion technology and more than double thrust capability compared to current electric propulsion systems,” said NASA.
“Through this contract, NASA will be developing advanced electric propulsion elements for initial spaceflight applications, which will pave the way for an advanced solar electric propulsion demonstration mission by the end of the decade,” said NASA associate administrator Steve Jurczyk. “Development of this technology will advance our future in-space transportation capability for a variety of NASA deep space human and robotic exploration missions, as well as private commercial space missions.”
When it comes to space travel, fuel is the limiting factor. The more fuel, the more a rocket weighs at launch. The more a rocket weighs, the smaller the payload it can carry and the shorter the distance it can travel. Each mission must carry enough fuel when it leaves the Earth to get where it is going and (hopefully) back again. There are no refueling stations in space, but there is plenty of sunlight.
Solar panels will be used to generate electricity, which will then ionize an onboard propellant. Xenon is commonly used as a propellant in ion propulsion systems because it can be ionized fairly easily. Positively charged ions, created by trapping electrons in a magnetic field, are then accelerated out of the ship to provide thrust. The technology is expected to be used in the upcoming Asteroid Redirect missions, which aim to explore the ways we could deflect an asteroid headed to Earth, as well as a manned trip to Mars, scheduled for around 2030.
Electric space propulsion isn’t new. NASA says it has been working on the concept for more than 50 years. But as with any technology, it needs to be made cost-effective, safe, and stable before it can be used in a mission. The Aerojet Rocketdyne contract is expected to move the process along more quickly. Aerojet Rocketdyne will use a design developed by NASA to produce a thruster, power processing unit (PPU), low-pressure xenon flow controller, and electrical harness.
NASA’s Dawn probe already uses a solar-electric propulsion system, but the thrusters being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne are expected to be five times more powerful. Just wait until Elon Musk hears about this!
Source: Science Alert Photo credit: NASA