Space

Not Science Fiction: Electric Propulsion Comes of Age With Psyche Mission to an Asteroid

Electric Hall Thruster NASA Psyche Spacecraft

At left, xenon plasma emits a blue glow from an electric Hall thruster identical to those that will propel NASA’s Psyche spacecraft to the main asteroid belt. On the right is a similar non-operating thruster. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

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    • Thanks for the note. There was some bad HTML markup that hid the rest of the article. It has been fixed.

    • Thanks for the note. There was some bad HTML markup that hid the rest of the article. It has been fixed.

    • It is electric in the sense that engine power comes from solar panels rather than chemical reactions in big rockets. This particular thruster is about nine times more fuel-efficient than the stored propellant used on past planetary missions. That's the chief advantage of electric, you can do more with a given mass.

  • What's the difference between this ion engine and the one used on the Dawn probe, and didn't that probe go to Vesta in 2008?

  • So, the thrust is produced how? Does the ionization on the spacecraft side provide unequal force compared to the escaping "exhaust"?

  • Ya'll missed the point. It's not using the xenon gas atoms themselves to do the work. Instead the crafts drive electrically supercharges the IONS of each gas atom, and then it SHOOTS the ions out the other end to create thrust. In sci-fi lore, space craft have TWO of these engines. These are called Twin Ion Engines, like TIE fighters.

  • I was under the impression that iodine was the best know substance for propulsion, inexpensive and available. Iodine is what I used in my science fiction book I'm presently editing. I'll have to check my sources, but I've clearly noted as such.

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