NASA is eyeing SEP to further enable its crewed space exploration efforts. Image Credit: NASA
Topics: Ion Propulsion, NASA, Space Exploration, Spaceflight
NASA is hard at work developing what they believe is the best space engine for future missions to Mars and beyond. It’s not warp drive. No, nothing so exotic or dreamy. In fact, it already exists. The challenge is to enhance it for our needs in space in the coming decades. That is the hope, and the goal, of NASA’s continuing development of solar electric propulsion (SEP).
Solar electric propulsion uses electricity generated from solar arrays to ionize atoms of the propellant xenon. These ions are then expelled by a strong electric field out the back of the spacecraft, producing thrust. So, in short, SEP is a propulsion system that is a combination, or coupling, of solar array technology and ion thruster technology.
The NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, has been a leader in both ends of this technology for decades. Its work with ion thruster technology began with the Space Electric Rocket Test 1 in 1964. Today, ion thrusters are used to keep over 100 geosynchronous Earth orbit satellites in their locations, a process called station keeping. The Deep Space 1 mission, which made flybys of asteroid Braille and the comet Borelly between 1998 and 2001, used the NASA Solar Technology Application Readiness (NSTAR) ion propulsion system.
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