NASA is shutting down its NEXT (NASA’s Evolutionary Zenon Thruster) ion engine which has been running continuously at the Glenn Research Center for over five years.
From the Glenn Press Release:
“The NEXT thruster operated for more than 48,000 hours,” said Michael J. 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 90,000 mph. 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 1,918 pounds (870 kilograms) of xenon propellant, providing an amount of total impulse that would take more than 22,000 (10,000 kilograms) of conventional rocket propellant for comparable applications.”
With all-electric satellites now taking the spotlight in the commercial comsat industry, and NASA increasingly incorporating electric propulsion orbital transfer and cargo delivery in proposed exploration architectures for asteroid capture, Cis-Lunar space operations and possible Mars missions, it is difficult to overstate the potential for such systems to alter the economics of in space transportation.
It is also enabling extended scientific journeys which are not unlike what is often portrayed in science fiction, only slower (much slower). At the moment, NASA’s ion driven Dawn spacecraft is en route to a 2015 visit to the icy dwarf planet Ceres in the main asteroid belt after breaking orbit round the large asteroid Vesta in 2012. It will become the first man-made spacecraft to visit and orbit two different solar system bodies.