Science & Technology

Job One for Aerojet’s future ion drive: Go out and get a piece of an asteroid

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s next-generation ion thrusters may properly make their debut in area throughout NASA’s robotic mission to seize a piece of an asteroid and convey it again to lunar orbit within the 2020s.

Earlier this week, NASA introduced that Aerojet’s operation in Redmond, Wash., could be getting in on a 36-month, $67 milllion contract to develop a high-power electrical propulsion system for future spacecraft. Right this moment, NASA officers defined what the system could be used for.

“Principally, we’re constructing a complete new drive practice for deep-space exploration,” Bryan Smith, director of NASA’s House Flight Techniques Directorate at Glenn Analysis Middle in Ohio, instructed reporters.

Engineers on the Ohio middle have been engaged on electrical propulsion know-how for the reason that Fifties, and low-power ion thrusters have been used on probes such because the Dawn spacecraft, which is presently orbiting Ceres. Such thrusters use solar-generated electrical energy to speed up xenon ions to extremely excessive velocity.

The thrust quantities to simply a whisper – roughly equal to the load of a piece of paper urgent down in your hand. However over time, the acceleration can construct as much as more than 200,000 mph.

Right this moment’s ion thrusters attain a energy stage of 4.5 kilowatts in area operations, and round 12.5 kilowatts within the lab. Aerojet is tasked with growing a 50- to 100-kilowatt system that places thrusters collectively to offer the oomph required to get to an asteroid or Mars.

Steve Jurczyk, affiliate administrator of NASA’s House Know-how Mission Directorate, mentioned the primary in-space check of the system may properly come through the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission. ARRM’s objective is to go out in 2020 or 2021, snatch a boulder from a near-Earth asteroid, and ship it to lunar orbit in 2025 or 2026 for research by a crew of astronauts.

The mission is predicted to yield deeper insights into what asteroids are made of, what it could require to divert a probably threatening asteroid, and how the know-how may work to ship payloads to Mars.

Regardless of what you see within the “Star Wars” motion pictures, ion drives aren’t that nice for sending people via deep area. They’re not highly effective sufficient to ship a crew into area straight from an earthly launch pad, and they construct up velocity too slowly. Smith estimated that it’d take two years for a spacecraft pushed by electrical propulsion to get to Mars, in contrast with 9 months utilizing chemical propulsion programs.

However the sluggish buildup isn’t as a lot of an concern for cargo shipments, and Aerojet’s ion thrusters are projected to be 10 occasions as fuel-efficient as as we speak’s chemical thrusters. Meaning much less gas mass could be wanted to ship equal payloads to Mars.

After the launch to an asteroid, the electrical propulsion system may subsequent come into play for sending a telecommunication orbiter to Mars within the 2022 timeframe, Jurczyk mentioned. One other potential utility could be to ship a probe to Mars, decide up a pattern of rocks and soil, and return the pattern to Earth – an concept that NASA and its companions have been speaking about for more than a decade.

NASA is making its personal analysis into electrical propulsion out there to all comers, however Aerojet’s work is more likely to convey the corporate long-term industrial profit.

“The plans for Aerojet Rocketdyne are to productize what they develop for us, and then promote it as a propulsion system choice for spacecraft builders and spacecraft programs integrators, for NASA missions, missions for different authorities companies or for missions for industrial functions,” Jurczyk instructed GeekWire.

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