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AeroJet Rocketdyne conducts successful test of PowerTrain solar electric system

Artist's conception of NASA's Orion spacecraft docking with a Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) cargo tug. Image Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

Artist's conception of NASA's Orion spacecraft docking with a Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) cargo tug. Image Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

Sacramento, California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne announced on Thursday, June 9, that they have successfully built and tested a prototype system that improves the way that power is delivered from solar arrays to the electric thrusters on Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) spacecraft. The prototype system was tested in a simulated mission environment to demonstrate that it could achieve greater system efficiency than the Power Management and Distribution (PMAD) systems currently used on satellites.

“For high-power SEP modules, such as those that NASA envisions for transporting cargo to Mars, it will be critical to efficiently process and deliver the power from the Advanced Solar Arrays to the High Power Electric Propulsion thrusters on spacecraft,” said Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of Advanced Space and Launch Programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne. “This is a critical step toward achieving that goal as we prepare to journey further into space.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s PowerTrain SEP system uses a peak power tracking capability to increase overall vehicle electrical efficiency and is compatible with current and future advanced Hall thrusters. The system was developed using breadboard power conditioning modules and tested at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Los Angeles facility, where much of the power-system hardware for the International Space Station (ISS) was developed.

Video courtesy of NASA

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s SEP thrusters were first used on the RCA Satcom 1R satellite in 1983. Aerojet Rocketdyne has flown over 500 electric thrusters since then, and over 200 satellites currently in orbit use their SEP systems. A mission concept study conducted by Aerojet Rocketdyne in 2012 indicated that mission costs for NASA Human Exploration cargo missions could be reduced by over 50 percent through the use of existing flight-proven SEP systems.

“Our team has constructed an approach that leverages the benefits of SEP to improve affordability and reduce [the] risk for NASA Human Exploration,” said Van Kleeck. “Using [an] SEP tug for cargo delivery, combined with NASA’s Space Launch System and the Orion crew module, provides an affordable path for deep space exploration.”



Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

Reader Comments

It is amazing how far ion propulsion systems have come over the last half a century. We are rapidly approaching the 51st anniversary of the first test of ion engines in space as part of the SERT I flight:

Although decades of additional work was required to improve the performance and reliability of the technology, by the turn of the century it was being routinely used in comsats and now is helping us explore the largest asteroids as part of NASA’s Dawn mission.

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