NASA’s Office of Space Science has announced the selection of a team for the development of an advanced ion propulsion system – an alternative to conventional chemical propulsion that could revolutionise the way science missions are sent into the solar system. A second team has also been selected to develop advanced ion optics, which are critical components of ion engines.
NASA’s Glenn Research Centre in Cleveland was selected to lead development of the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) system, which will use xenon gas and electrical power to drive future spacecraft.
A team led by Boeing Electron Dynamic Devices was selected to pursue development, fabrication and testing of carbon-based ion optics, critical components of high-power ion thrusters that have traditionally limited thruster lifetime.
The NEXT Project is a proposed two-part endeavour. The first phase is a one-year effort to design, build and test initial versions of ion thrusters, propellant feed systems and power processing units, which convert solar array power into forms useful for the ion engine.
At the end of Phase 1, NASA may exercise a Phase 2 option to complete hardware development and integrate components into a full-scale system.
The total potential value of the Glenn award over the next three and one-half years is approximately $21 million. The total value of the Boeing team award is approximately $4 million. Total NASA funding for NEXT system development activities is approximately $27 million.
Ion propulsion systems are said to convert electrical power and xenon propellant into high-speed ion flows that accelerate spacecraft with fuel efficiencies about ten times higher than conventional chemical propulsion.
An ion thruster converts electrical power and xenon gas into a high-velocity flow of positively charged ions and metal grids that exert an electrostatic force accelerate these ions. The accelerated ions leave the thruster at speeds of up to 89,000 mph, propelling the spacecraft forward. This results in fuel efficiency that is said to exceed conventional chemical engines by as much as a factor of 10.