ion propulsion

NASA just awarded a $67 million contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne to build an all electric propulsion system to be used in space.  The goal of this propulsion is is to be used in the asteroid redirect system and eventually the planned trip to Mars in 2030.

The goal is to use solar panels to generate an electric charge, which in turn will  be used to ionize the on-board propellent.  By trapping the positively charged ions in a magnetic field.  They are then accelerated out of the ship to create thrust known as an ion thruster.

NASA has been working on electric propulsion for over 50 years.  The challenge is similar to that of most new technologies, making to safe, stable and cost-effective.  NASA hopes that Aerojet Rocketdyne will speed the development process.

“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.

Long-distance space travel requires incredible fuel efficiency.  A trip to Mars is likely to take about 8 months.  16 months (8 there and 8 back) of fuels is incredibly hard to squeeze into a ship.

Aerojet Rocketdyne will be working off a design developed by NASA that utilizes Xenon as the propellant.  Xenon is commonly used as a propellant in ion propulsion system.

“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.”