NASA taps Aerojet Rocketdyne to produce deep space solar electric propulsion systems
NASA has consistently stated that it is planning on sending crews to Mars in the 2030s. To get them there, the space agency will need new technologies. One of these, solar electric propulsion is something that, while not entirely new, could be of great importance to the agency as it looks to reignite its crewed exploration of deep space.
Aerojet Rocketdyne has been selected by the space agency to design and develop technologies that could be used on NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as well as others that the agency is currently working on. Aerojet Rocketdyne will be providing these systems to the robotic portion of the two-stage ARM initiative.
“Through this contract, NASA will be developing advanced electric propulsion elements for initial spaceflight applications, which will pave the way for an advanced solar electric propulsion demonstration mission by the end of the decade,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). “Development of this technology will advance our future in-space transportation capability for a variety of NASA deep space human and robotic exploration missions, as well as private commercial space missions.”
NASA’s Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) agreement is planned to last for about three years as a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract that includes a performance incentive at a total value of approximately $67 million.
It is hoped that the systems that emerge from this agreement will have an improved fuel efficiency of perhaps more than 10 times over the chemical-based systems that are currently employed. Fuel efficiency is often viewed as having less power – not so in this case with as much as twice the thrust capability of electric propulsion systems that are currently used potentially emerging from this system.
The propulsion system that Aerojet Rocketdyne will produce is supposed to consist of a thruster, power processing Unit or “PPU”, a low-pressure xenon flow controller, and electrical harness. As has been the case so many times in the past, NASA will be serving as a guide for the company.
The space agency has already tested a prototype of the thruster and PPU – something Aerojet Rocketdyne will make use of as a reference design.
From there, Aerojet Rocketdyne will build, test and deliver an engineering development unit that will be used to validate the design for future units that should be produced afterward. Aerojet Rocketdyne could also see support coming from the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Glenn Research Center.
NASA hopes to send a crew to a portion of an asteroid that has been towed into lunar orbit during the first robotic phase of the mission. If everything goes according to plan, ARM should take place sometime in the mid-2020s with the largest SEP ever flown set to be tested out during this flight.
If NASA chooses to exercise the option period of the contract Aerojet Rocketdyne is required to produce four integrated flight units.
As noted, NASA has been interested in this technology for some time – since the start of the Space Age in fact. The agency developed the first successful ion engine in the 1950s. Glenn’s Space Electric Rocket Test 1 was the first use of an electric propulsion system; it was sent aloft on July 20, 1964.
NASA has used solar electric propulsion systems more and more, predominantly on robotic missions to distant worlds throughout the Solar System. The most recent use of this technology was on the Dawn mission which has traveled to both the giant asteroid Vesta (2011) and then moved on to the dwarf planet Ceres (2015).
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.