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Advanced Electric Propulsion System successfully tested at NASA’s Glenn Research Center

NASA Aerojet Rocketdyne Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS)

Advanced solar electric propulsion will be needed for future human expeditions into deep space, including to Mars. Shown here is a 13-kilowatt Hall thruster being evaluated at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Hall thrusters trap electrons in a magnetic field and use them to ionize the onboard propellant. It uses 10 times less propellant than equivalent chemical rockets. (Click for full view) Photo & Caption Credit: NASA

A new propulsion system, one funded by the Space Technology Mission Directorate, underwent a series of hot-fire tests recently at NASA’s Glenn Research Center located in Cleveland, Ohio. The tests were conducted on a Power Processing Unit, or “PPU”, for an Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) that is hoped could be used on either NASA’s deep space ambitions or by the space agency’s commercial partners.

“The Power Processing Unit successfully demonstrated stable operation of the propulsion system and responded appropriately to all of our planned contingency scenarios,” said Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of Advanced Space and Launch Programs and Strategy at Aerojet Rocketdyne via a company-issued release. “This is a critical step in providing advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which is necessary for affordable cargo and logistics transportation in support of human missions to Mars.”

At Glenn, both Aerojet Rocketdyne, with help from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, worked to provide a flight-capable system that is capable of operating for approximately 23,000 hours. If things continue to go as planned, this propulsion system could be used in the transportation of cargo and habitats

“Aerojet Rocketdyne has a long successful history designing and developing electric propulsion systems, and we look forward to maturing high power Hall systems for multiple applications, including NASA, defense and commercial missions,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne’s CEO and President Eileen Drake via a company-issued release. “Congratulations to everyone involved in advancing this critical technology that will change the way humans explore space.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is also involved on the project which was awarded a $65 million contract to develop and produce five 12.5 kilowatt Hall thruster subsystems. These include the thrusters, PPU’s, as well as xenon flow controllers. The contract is part of the space agency’s Solar Electric Propulsion Technology Demonstration Mission.

According to information issued by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the AEPS produces twice as much thrust as another recent offering made by the California-based company – the XR-5 Hall thruster.

The XR-5 has already been used on both government and commercial missions. Hall thrusters, however, are nothing new. The former Soviet Union used them as far back as December of 1971

If everything goes as planned, these propulsion systems could be used on new vehicles that NASA is planning on launching beyond Earth orbit as well as those being developed by NASA’s commercial partners (which are planned for taking the reins of the agency’s flights to the International Space Station). Given the distances involved, the U.S. space agency hopes these efforts could see spacecraft transportation fuel efficiency improve by as much as 10 percent (over traditional chemical propulsion systems).

Hall-effect thrusters (named after the discoverer Edwin Hall) are ion thrusters that accelerate propellant via an electric field. Electrons, trapped within a magnetic field, are used to ionize that propellant, thereby producing thrust as the ions are accelerated by the electric field; the ions are then neutralized by the electrons in the exhaust plume.

With NASA becoming ever-more audible about its plans to send crews to Mars and its numerous efforts to have commercial firms handle sending cargo and crews to the sole destination in low-Earth orbit – the International Space Station.

 

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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.

Reader Comments

Assess the possibility of micropulsing to the drive system and power gain by increasing the temperature of the ionized gas.

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