NASA's new ion engine ready for missions in space

April 15, 2011, JPL/NASA
NASA's new ion engine ready for missions in space
40 cm Ion Thruster in Operation

( -- A small robotic surveyor arrives to explore a near-Earth asteroid. Another robotic spacecraft is returning to Earth with a pristine comet surface sample. Meanwhile, a robotic explorer is approaching Uranus, carrying scientific instruments that will allow us to learn more about our solar system. What do all these mission concepts have in common?

These scenarios, analyzed and recommended by the planetary science community in its recent study "Visons and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022," all may use the exceptional performance and lifetime capability of an advanced ion engine developed by NASA's Glenn Research Center.

The ion engine, NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT), is the next generation of the ion engine now propelling the to asteroids Vesta and Ceres.

In its continuing effort to improve the NEXT ion engine, NASA recently completed a series of tests that mimic the requirements of a wide range of ambitious missions. An engine lifetime demonstration, initiated in June, 2005, recently achieved two milestones in electric propulsion testing.

Surpassing the longest operating duration of previous by 5,000 hours, NEXT has operated for more than 35,500 hours, more than four years of cumulative time. In addition, over 600 kilograms of xenon propellant have been expended, twice as much as originally required. These two measures are essential to accomplishing long-duration scientific space exploration missions.

Long lifetime allows the mission designer to build a simpler ion propulsion system by reducing the number of engines required, while providing more science payload capability and higher reliability.

Engineers at Glenn predict that the engine will continue to operate for at least two more years, further extending the capability of the ion propulsion system and providing more mission opportunities. "The engineers at Glenn and Aerojet have done an incredible job in designing out the lifetime limitations of prior generations of ," said Michael J. Patterson, NEXT principal investigator and senior propulsion technologist at Glenn. "A new standard in electric propulsion lifetime has been set."

While traditionally-used chemical propulsion typically performs accelerating burns for several minutes, then coasts, the ion engine operates continuously for several years, providing constant acceleration to the spacecraft. By providing a small, constant thrust over long periods of time, the engine accelerates spacecraft to thousands of kilometers per hour, while using less than a tenth of the propellant of a conventional, chemical rocket. This efficiency will allow spacecraft to reach more distant and difficult scientific targets throughout the solar system. For that reason, demonstration of long duration operations is critical to the technology validation.

The NEXT project is a joint technology and engineering development program led by Glenn to develop a next generation system, including power processing, management and other components. The Aerojet Corporation, Redmond, Wash., has successfully advanced the Glenn NEXT engine technology concept to a flight-ready design. Other members of the NEXT team include NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; and L-3 Communications Electron Technologies, Torrance, Calif.

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2.5 / 5 (8) Apr 15, 2011
At least George Lucas got the looks of the ion engines on the Imperial Star Destroyers right.
1.3 / 5 (59) Apr 15, 2011
Unlike Star Wars, Star Trek has actually had an impact on currently available technology. Ever see a flip phone?

Now if Star Trek would only have an influence on our economy/politics.
1.6 / 5 (7) Apr 15, 2011
Actually the poeple who made the PC possible got the idea from the very first star trek!
5 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2011
If ion engines fire continuously over years to achieve high speeds to reach their targets more quickly, how do they slow down once the get there? Would they have to reverse thrust half way out in order to slow down sufficiently to study the target at length?

Or would they use orbital mechanics to shed speed? That's okay if the target is a planet, but no so much for smaller bodies. Or do the probes also have small chemical thrusters for quick deceleration?
not rated yet Apr 15, 2011
Wait til we get Dr Chang-Diaz's VASIMR engine going good! Then watch the race for outer space really take off. Just maybe those things could be used for primary take off too. Never know what the future holds.
not rated yet Apr 16, 2011
If ion engines fire continuously over years to achieve high speeds to reach their targets more quickly, how do they slow down once the get there? Would they have to reverse thrust half way out in order to slow down sufficiently to study the target at length?


That's the most economic way to travel in space if you have to stop at the end. You accelerate constantly and simply reverse the thrust half way in.

Slowing down halfway isn't such a big deal, because the ion engines can achieve truly staggering speeds. A Newton of force per ton of mass for one year gets you 31 kilometers per second. You'd be half way to Jupiter by christmas.
5 / 5 (2) Apr 16, 2011
Another interesting engine is the Hall effect thruster. It has comparable specific impulse, scales to much higher power levels, can use more common gasses for fuel and has a track record of zero failures in space all the way from 1971. It's used in many commercial satellites for keeping orbit and even changing orbits.


Of course NASA likes to be quiet about it, because of It-Wasn't-Invented-Here(tm). It was a Soviet invention and unkown to the west until about 1992.
1 / 5 (2) Apr 16, 2011
how do they slow down once the get there? Would they have to reverse thrust half way out in order to slow down sufficiently to study the target at length?

Or would they use orbital mechanics to shed speed?
Some missions are flybys (no stopping).

For capture missions, there are all sorts of cool tricks you can use. Here's a partial list:


If you want to see how crazy it can get, check out this proposed trajectory:


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