NASA engineers are testing the high-power solar electric propulsion systems that could soon push exploration missions further into deep space. A stunning new image from the agency’s Glenn Research Center shows a Hall thruster ahead of ground testing in a vacuum chamber.
The device is said to have three times the power of existing systems, and the experiments in the vacuum chamber will put it to the test of a simulated space environment, allowing engineers to see how it performs.
In the image, NASA engineer Dr Peter Peterson can be seen preparing the high-power thruster – a device that the agency says is ‘critical’ in the future of deep space exploration.
Called the Hall Effect Rocket with Magnetic Shielding (HERMeS), the device operates at 12.5 kW, making it far more powerful than current systems. The agency plans to use these thrusters with solar electric propulsion (SEP) systems, which would allow for more cost-effective exploration of deep space, using 10 times less propellant than other systems.
The electrostatic Hall thrusters are equipped with advanced magnetic shielding, and are designed to provide ‘gentle but nonstop’ thrust for the duration of a mission. Several Hall thrusters will be used for the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM), operating at a total power of 40 kW with solar array wings that will supply 50 kW overall.
The robotic component of the ARM will demonstrate the world’s most advanced and most efficient solar electric propulsion system as it travels to a near-Earth asteroid (NEA). NEAs are asteroids that are fewer than 121 million miles (1.3 AU) from the sun at the closest point in their orbit. ARM is a two-part mission that will integrate robotic and crewed spacecraft operations in the proving ground of deep space to demonstrate key capabilities needed for Nasa’s journey to Mars.
It is estimated to cost about $1.4 billion (£1.12 billion) not including launch costs and is targeted for lift-off in December 2021.
The crewed segment, targeted for launch in 2026, remains in an early mission concept phase, or pre-formulation. This past summer, the space agency approved the radical Asteroid Redirect Mission to proceed to the next phase of design and development for the mission’s robotic segment.
Although the target asteroid is not expected to be officially selected until 2020, NASA is using 2008 EV5 as the reference asteroid while the search continues for potential alternates.