NASA this week announced that its advanced ion propulsion has completed 48,000 hours (five and a half years) of successful testing. This makes it the longest-tested space propulsion system in NASA history.
The NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) Project has created a 7-kilowatt class thruster that will be used in future space missions, including deep space missions. The engine runs on solar electricity, converting energy generated by solar panels to accelerate a xenon propellant to speeds of up to 90,000 miles per hour. According to NASA, the engine is a significant improvement in performance over chemical rocke engines.
"The NEXT thruster operated for more than 48,000 hours," said Michael Patterson, principal investigator for NEXT at NASA's Glenn Research Center, where the NEXT's core ionization chamber was built. "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's ion acceleration assembly was designed and manufactured by the Aerojet Rocketdyne company, The goal of the NEXT project was to develop a next-generation electric-powered engine for future space missions. The project was part of the In-Space Propulsion Technology Program, which is also conducted at the Glenn Research Center. Hall Trusters, Solar Sails, and advanced chemical propulsion systems are also being researched under the program.
"Aerojet Rocketdyne fully supports NASA's vision to develop high power solar electric propulsion for future exploration," said Julie Van Kleeck, VP for space advanced programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne. "NASA-developed next generation high power solar electric propulsion systems will enhance our nation's ability to perform future science and human exploration missions."
(Image courtesy NASA/Christopher J. Lynch)