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Improving solar electric propulsion for deep space exploration

20 April 2016

NASA has selected Aerojet Rocketdyne to design and develop an electric propulsion system that will significantly advance the nation's commercial space capabilities.

Shown here is a 13kW Hall thruster being evaluated at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Hall thrusters trap electrons in a magnetic field and use them to ionize the onboard propellant. (Credit: NASA)

The system will also enable deep space exploration missions, including the robotic portion of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and its Journey to Mars.

Work performed under the contract could potentially increase spaceflight transportation fuel efficiency by ten times over current chemical propulsion technology and more than double thrust capability compared to current electric propulsion systems.

“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 Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in Washington.

“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.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne will oversee the development and delivery of an integrated electric propulsion system consisting of a thruster, power processing unit (PPU), low-pressure xenon flow controller, and electrical harness. NASA has developed and tested a prototype thruster and PPU that the company can use as a reference design.

The company will construct, test and deliver an engineering development unit for testing and evaluation in preparation for producing the follow-on flight units. During the option period of the contract, if exercised, the company will develop, verify and deliver four integrated flight units – the electric propulsion units that will fly in space. The work being performed under this contract will be led by a team of NASA Glenn Research Centre engineers, with additional technical support by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineers. 

NASA anticipates the electrical power to operate this advanced electric propulsion flight system in space will be generated by solar arrays using structures similar to those that were developed under the solar array systems contracts.

The advanced electric propulsion system is the next step in NASA’s Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) project, which is developing critical technologies to extend the range and capabilities of ambitious new science and exploration missions. ARM, NASA’s mission to capture an asteroid boulder and place it in orbit around the moon in the mid-2020s, will test the largest and most advanced SEP system ever utilised for space missions.

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