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NASA thruster achieves world-record 5+ years of operation

26 June 2013

A NASA advanced ion propulsion engine has reached a test milestone by operating successfully under test for more than 48,000 hours.

A NASA Glenn engineer performs verification tests of the imaging diagnostic suite that allowed for periodic assessment of the components on the NEXT engine during it's multi-year test (photo courtesy of NASA)

A NASA advanced ion propulsion engine has successfully operated for more than 48,000 hours, or five 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 Centre in Cleveland. Glenn manufactured the test engine's core ionization chamber, while Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, designed and built the ion acceleration assembly. 

The 7kW 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 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 90,000mph. 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 870kg of xenon propellant, providing an amount of total impulse that would take more than 10,000kg 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 programmes. "NASA-developed next generation high power solar electric propulsion systems will enhance our nation's ability to perform future science and human exploration missions." 

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