When it comes time for NASA’s Psyche spacecraft to power itself through deep space, it’ll be more brain than brawn that does the work. Once the stuff of science fiction, the efficient and quiet power of electric propulsion will provide the force that propels the Psyche spacecraft all the way to the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The orbiter’s target is a metal-rich asteroid also called Psyche.
The photo on the left captures an operating electric Hall thruster identical to those that will propel NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, which is set to launch in August 2022 and travel to the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The xenon plasma emits a blue glow as the thruster operates. The photo on the right shows a similar non-operating Hall thruster. The photo on the left was taken at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; the photo on the right was taken at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.
Psyche’s Hall thrusters will be the first to be used beyond lunar orbit, demonstrating that they could play a role in supporting future missions to deep space. The spacecraft is set to launch in August 2022 and its super-efficient mode of propulsion uses solar arrays to capture sunlight that is converted into electricity to power the spacecraft’s thrusters. The thrusters work by turning xenon gas, a neutral gas used in car headlights and plasma TVs, into xenon ions. As the xenon ions are accelerated out of the thruster, they create the thrust that will propel the spacecraft.