NASA’s Improved Ion-Propulsion Engine Makes Longer Space Voyages Possible

August 5, 2009

(ChattahBox)—NASA has improved on a previous ion-propulsion system to power spaceships, which is fuel-efficient and more powerful, paving the way for future long distance space voyages to Jupiter or Mercury. The electrically charged ion-propulsion engine, although not as powerful as current chemical propulsion systems, would allow deep-space missions to take place in sturdier spacecrafts.

Engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH gave the 50-year old ion-propulsion system a much needed face-lift, improving its fuel efficiency, while making the engine larger, but lighter. An Ion- propulsion engine was last used on the robotic Dawn mission to an asteroid belt in 2007 and first used on Deep Space 1 in 1998.

The ion-propulsion engine works by electrically charging or ionizing, a gas using solar power and releasing the ionized gas to propel the spacecraft.

Xenon gas is released inside a reaction chamber where it’s ionized, with electromagnets strengthening the electrical charge. Electrodes are placed near the engine’s thrusters to accelerate the ions and shoot them out of the exhaust to push the spacecraft forward to achieve liftoff.

Lead NASA engineer Michael Patterson says, “The engine has a higher power level and a larger throttling dynamic range–it can go from very high power to very low power–so it can operate for longer periods of time and better execute its mission.” However, the reliance on solar power does limit the spacecraft to missions that are not too far away from the sun.

A mission ready ion-propulsion spacecraft could be ready to launch as soon as 2013.

The NASA engineers presented their work in a paper at the Joint Propulsion Conference and Exhibit held recently in Denver.



2 Responses to “NASA’s Improved Ion-Propulsion Engine Makes Longer Space Voyages Possible”

  1. Albert Spoonhauler on August 5th, 2009 4:08 pm

    At 0.3 ounces of thrust I don’t think that liftoff would ever be achieved unless the entire spacecraft weighted less than that. Conventional engines get it out into space, the ion engines take it from there.

  2. NASA’s Improved Ion-Propulsion Engine Makes Longer Space Voyages Possible on August 6th, 2009 6:03 am

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