NASA's Ion Engine Breaks Performance Record

Sep 28, 2007

An ion engine prototype developed at NASA's Glenn Research Center has now accumulated more than 12,000 hours of operation and processed over 245 kilograms of xenon, setting a record for most propellant throughput ever demonstrated by an ion engine.

The engine is the critical component of NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) system, which uses xenon gas and solar electric power to drive future robotic science spacecraft to distant asteroids, comets, planets and their moons.

The propellant throughput achieved exceeds the previous record of 235 kilograms demonstrated by the 30,000 hour ground life test of the spare Deep Space 1 engine.

Additionally, the ion engine has demonstrated over 10 million Newton-seconds total impulse, the highest total impulse ever demonstrated by an ion engine in the history of space propulsion.

"Total impulse is the product of the engine's thrust and firing duration and is a direct measure of its capability to perform missions," according the Mike Patterson, Glenn's NEXT principal investigator. "This test validates NEXT technology for a wide range of NASA solar system exploration missions, as well as the potential for Earth-space commercial ventures."

Today's chemical propulsion systems get their big boost and then coast at constant speed until the next boost. An ion engine can produce its small thrust continually and thereby provide near constant acceleration and shorter travel times. Ion propulsion is also ten times more fuel efficient than chemical onboard propulsion systems. This greater efficiency means less propellant is needed for a mission. Spacecraft can then be smaller and lighter, with lower launch costs.

The NEXT engine builds on the success of NASA's Solar Electric Propulsion Technology Applications Readiness (NSTAR) thruster, which successfully propelled NASA's Deep Space 1 mission. It will more than triple the power level achievable with NSTAR while increasing efficiency and system performance characteristics.

"The NEXT engine performance remains constant and the wear rates of critical thruster components are consistent with model predictions estimating throughput capability," said Daniel Herman, aerospace engineer overseeing the ion engine testing at Glenn.

"Achieving this throughput milestone is critical in demonstrating the readiness of NEXT for mission opportunities in the next few years," said Scott Benson, Glenn's NEXT project manager.

The NEXT project is developing most of the components necessary for an ion propulsion system, including the thruster, power processing unit, xenon feed system, gimbal and associated algorithms and controller hardware. These components can be combined in a range of system configurations to best meet any particular mission's needs.

Glenn has led development of the NEXT system since 2002. Other members of the NEXT team include NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; Aerojet, Redmond, Wash.; and L-3 Communications Electron Technologies, Torrance, Calif.

The NEXT project is being conducted under the In-Space Propulsion Technology Program, managed by NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington and implemented by Glenn.

Source: NASA

Explore further: Manchester scientists boost NASA's missions to Mars

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050

Nov 07, 2014

The aircraft industry is expecting a seven-fold increase in air traffic by 2050, and a four-fold increase in greenhouse gas emissions unless fundamental changes are made. But just how "fundamental" will those ...

Dawn operating normally after safe mode triggered

Sep 17, 2014

(Phys.org) —The Dawn spacecraft has resumed normal ion thrusting after the thrusting unexpectedly stopped and the spacecraft entered safe mode on September 11. That anomaly occurred shortly before a planned ...

Mass spectrometry in your hand

Sep 09, 2014

If you're out in the field doing environmental testing, food checks, forensic work, or other chemical analysis, mass spectrometry is an extremely accurate detection tool with one huge drawback: You can lose ...

'Ferrari of space' set to fall to Earth

Sep 12, 2013

A science satellite dubbed the "Ferrari of space" for its sleek, finned looks will shortly run out of fuel and fall to Earth after a successful mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) says.

Recommended for you

Manchester scientists boost NASA's missions to Mars

8 minutes ago

Computer Scientists from The University of Manchester have boosted NASA space missions by pioneering a global project to develop programs that efficiently test and control NASA spacecraft.

ESA image: The gold standard

30 minutes ago

The Eutelsat-9B satellite with its EDRS-A payload is shown in the anechoic test chamber of Airbus Defence and Space in Toulouse, France, having completed its final antenna pattern tests today.

Frost-covered chaos on Mars

30 minutes ago

Thanks to a break in the dusty 'weather' over the giant Hellas Basin at the beginning of this year, ESA's Mars Express was able to look down into the seven kilometre-deep basin and onto the frosty surface ...

Rosetta's comet: In the shadow of the coma

7 hours ago

This NAVCAM mosaic comprises four individual images taken on 20 November from a distance of 30.8 km from the centre of Comet 67P/C-G. The image resolution is 2.6 m/pixel, so each original 1024 x 1024 pixel ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

out7x
1 / 5 (1) Jan 10, 2008
245 kilos of xenon is alot. What are the implications for interstellar missions? 10 million Newton-seconds? Come on, use useful measures.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.