NASA Ion Engine Sets Duration Record
Kyle Maxey posted on June 28, 2013 |

NASA, Ion, engine, Glenn, Europa, Titan, NEXT, propulsion, xenon, spaceIf NASA is ever to travel to infinity and beyond, they’re going to have use something other than conventional chemical rocket engines. In tests at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT), is leading the charge toward a new era of space propulsion.

According to NASA, the NEXT rocket has just set a record for the longest continual use of a propulsion system at 48,000 hours or 5 ½ years of non-stop use.

Highly efficient, the NEXT engine’s 7-kilowatt class thruster is powered by a series of solar panels that provide the propulsion system with all the energy it needs to accelerate charged xenon particles up to 90,000 mph (145,000km/h).  These particles are then jettisoned out of the engine creating thrust for their accompanying craft.

While the Dawn mission is currently streaking through space propelled by an ion-thruster, NASA is looking to roll out the technology on other missions headed for deep space. Unlike traditional engines an ion engine produces a minimal amount of thrust, however, its ability to fire for years on end give it the ability to push a craft to incredible speeds; something that’s required to reach deep space.

Compared to conventional chemical rockets the NEXT engine is in a completely different stratosphere when it comes to fuel efficiency. Over the course of its 5 year life the NEXT thruster has required a scant 1,918 lb (870 kg) of xenon gas and created the equivalent propulsion of 22,000 lbs (10,000kg) of conventional rocket propellant.

According to Michael Patterson, principle investigator for NEXT, "The NEXT thruster operated for more than 48,000 hours,” however “"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." 

With the successful completion of this test, NASA has strengthened its argument that it has the capability to reliably reach targets in deep space. Hopefully, in the coming years they can find funding for missions meant to explore the myriad worlds of our solar system.

Image Courtesy of NASA

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