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NASA Wants a New Solar Electric Engine for Deep Space Travel

While the news about the latest development in the EmDrive is interesting but not imminent and the news about the laser-pushed wafer-thin space sails is getting all of the publicity, NASA quietly unveiled a new plan to develop a new electric propulsion solar-powered engine to send spaceships into deep space. Electric propulsion? Is there anything Elon Musk isn’t involved with?

Well, Elon’s not working on this system … yet. NASA just awarded a $67 million three-year contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop an electric spaceship that could be used for the upcoming Asteroid Redirect missions and possibly for the manned Mars mission in 2030. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s mission is to deliver the Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) – an integrated electric propulsion system consisting of a thruster, power processing unit (PPU), low-pressure xenon flow controller, and electrical harness.

A 13-kilowatt Hall-effect thruster being evaluated by NASA that traps electrons in a magnetic field to ionize the onboard propellant.

A 13-kilowatt Hall-effect thruster being evaluated by NASA that traps electrons in a magnetic field to ionize the onboard propellant.

Anyone who has waited hours for their electric car to recharge so they can go another 100 miles is saying to themselves, “Yeah, right.” NASA has been contemplating electric propulsion for almost as long as there’s been a NASA, but there’s no Atlas Volt yet. What makes NASA think now is the time for electric propulsion and the AEPS Is the right platform?

Efficiency, for one thing. AEPS will use a Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) that converts solar energy to electricity that will then accelerate an ionized propellant to extremely high speeds, sending them out the thruster in photon-illuminated blue glow. This is already being used on the Dawn spacecraft orbiting Ceres but Aerojet Rocketdyne plans to at least double that engine’s capacity (estimates say they will be five times better) and provide ten times the fuel efficiency of today’s conventional chemical propulsion systems.

An artist's depiction of the Asteroid Redirect Mission using Solar Electric Power

An artist’s depiction of the Asteroid Redirect Mission using Solar Electric Power

Slow down there, NASA. How can it be “solar-powered” and “deep space” at the same time? NASA knew you’d ask that. It is also working on advanced solar array technology (different contract with different company) to improve solar power collection for travel far away from the sun.

When will this be available? The Asteroid Redirect Mission to send a robot to grab an asteroid and move it to a lunar orbit is scheduled for the mid 2020s, which in NASA-speak probably means late 2020s. And to cover their asteroids, Aerojet Rocketdyne is also working on the chemically-propelled RS-25 engines for missions related to NASA’s Journey to Mars initiative.

Electric cars are happening on Earth is a big way. So is solar power. Should we get excited about an electric rocket engine even though it’s only improving speed and efficiency by at most a factor of ten? Is space the next frontier for solar-powered, ion propulsion electric spacecraft or will it end up in a giant trash compactor like General Motors’ EV1? Only time will tell.