NASA's New Propulsion System That Will Take Us To Deep Space Just Passed A Critical Test

Hall Thruster from the Glenn research Center. NASA 

Rocket science has taken us from the ground to the Moon. But if we want to go into deep space, we can’t just rely on bigger and bigger rockets. We need more sophisticated propulsion. NASA has taken this challenge seriously and started looking into new approaches. One of them, the Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) has now passed a critical test.

Developed in collaboration with Aerojet Rocketdyne, AEPS is seen as a key component of the propulsion of large-scale science missions and cargo transport. It’s probably the propulsion system that will be adopted in the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, which will be placed in lunar-orbit in 2022.

AEPS is a next-generation ion-thruster. It creates propulsion by accelerating ionized atoms with an electric field. It creates a modest amount of thrust compared to traditional chemical rockets, but it is capable of doing so for a longer time and with a lot less fuel. Less fuel means less weight to carry with you into orbit and beyond.

The test evaluated the propulsion system’s discharge supply unit and power processing unit. The engineering team showed that the AEPS can convert power at a high-efficiency level, producing minimal waste heat. The test was performed in the thermal vacuum chamber at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio.

Currently, the most powerful Hall thruster in orbit is 4.5 kilowatts. Each AEPS will be over 10 times more powerful, reaching 50 kilowatts.

“Our AEPS discharge supply unit performed exceptionally, yielding significant conversion efficiency improvements important for future demanding missions,” said Eileen Drake, said CEO and president of Aerojet Rocketdyne in a statement. “These results are a testament to the Aerojet Rocketdyne team’s focus and dedication to advancing the state of the art in this critical in-space technology area.”

The next step will be testing the early systems integration. The team will then move into design finalization, and finally the critical design review. Once it passes that, the final design will move into actual production. The Lunar gateway is expected to sport four AEPS as well as chemical booster rockets.  

“By staying on the cutting edge of propulsion technology, we have positioned ourselves for a major role not only in getting back to the Moon, but also in any future initiative to send people to Mars,” Drake continued. “AEPS is the vanguard for the next generation of deep space exploration and we’re thrilled to be at the mast.”

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