(NASA) – No there is no Starship Enterprise but the famed backup to the warp drive, the Ion Engines are very much a reality. NASA’s advanced ion propulsion engine has successfully operated for more than 48,000 hours, or 5 and a half years, making it the longest test duration of any type of space propulsion system demonstration project ever.
The thruster was developed under NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) Project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Glenn manufactured the test engine’s core ionization chamber. Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, Calif., designed and built the ion acceleration assembly.
The 7-kilowatt class thruster could be used in a wide range of science missions, including deep space missions identified in NASA’s Planetary Science Decadal Survey.
“The NEXT thruster operated for more than 48,000 hours,” said Michael J. Patterson, principal investigator for NEXT at Glenn. “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.”
The NEXT engine is a type of solar electric propulsion in which thruster systems use the electricity generated by the spacecraft’s solar panel to accelerate the xenon propellant to speeds of up to 90,000 mph. This provides a dramatic improvement in performance compared to conventional chemical rocket engines.
During the endurance test performed in a high vacuum test chamber at Glenn, the engine consumed about 1,918 pounds (870 kilograms) of xenon propellant, providing an amount of total impulse that would take more than 22,000 (10,000 kilograms) of conventional rocket propellant for comparable applications.
“Aerojet Rocketdyne fully supports NASA’s vision to develop high power solar electric propulsion for future exploration,” said Julie Van Kleeck, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s vice president for space advanced programs. “NASA-developed next generation high power solar electric propulsion systems will enhance our nation’s ability to perform future science and human exploration missions.”
The NEXT project is a technology development effort led by Glenn to develop a next generation electric propulsion system, including power processing, propellant management and other components. The project, conducted under the In-Space Propulsion Technology Program at Glenn, is managed by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
Pushing that dose of xenon into orbit to run this process will require hundreds of thousands of pounds of rocket and propellant, making this an exercise in frustration. We need nuclear power in space to ionize chunks of asteroids and throw the ions out a modified thrusting unit similar to the one described. The gravity well is our enemy in space at all levels. The same type nuclear units with whatever fuel that we boost to it can go out and get those asteroidal bits and pieces to use as further fuel.