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

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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  • Dan

    Uh. The article cuts off. The xenon what

    • Mike O'Neill

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

  • Jas

    The xenon…!?
    Editor?

    • Mike O'Neill

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

  • Rand

    I assume it doesn’t produce much thrust. But just enough in the vacuum of space.

  • Matt

    So it’s not electric… It’s just another xenon powered thruster? What happens when you run out of xenon?

    • Dani Eder

      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.

  • Bob

    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?

  • Jules Pitsker

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

  • jat

    lasers on a sacrifice metal like aluminum would give much more thrust with 3watts laser

  • Captain Nemo

    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.

  • Edward Maher

    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.

  • Jake

    I to am curious what amount of thrust it creates

  • Kami

    Dawn was a gridded ion thruster while this one is Hall Effect thruster. Gridded ion thruster is more efficient but lower thrust compared to Hall thruster.

  • Tony Buckland

    I winder if theres a speed where the atoms and molecules colliding with the vehicle could be managed to gain further thrust without using stored fuel.

  • David

    Sounds great. I love seeing stuff that was once just dreamed up in comic books or tv shows become a reality. I wish I had the smarts to really be my able to to wrap my head around the inner workings but I’m just glad that stuff like this is happening. Imagine where we might have been if we had kept going right after we went to the moon.

  • Sterling

    So not really electric then , it uses electricity to exite a gas that could already propel the vehicle. Basically turbo charging…

    • WildBill

      This thruster propels the gas at a speed many times faster than a pressurized tank could and requires a much smaller fuel rate.it is much more efficient than can be achieved by burning a fuel.

  • Erichugh8@gmail.com

    We must use the vacuum itself to thrust

  • Maurizio Pescatori

    The real point is not whether they should use xenon, iodine or what.
    The real point is they are still using Newtonian physics

  • Danny Godi

    I’m getting older, not feeling so well anyway. I’d be up for a ride on that sucker, DART. Provide live commentary … 💥👍

  • wayne kearney

    Hold on: Deep Space 1 used an electric Xenon drive in 1998. This is not new…

  • Paul

    Using solar panels to create electricity is ok if you only want to do short voyages in our solar system ‘ because the further you get from the sun the less sunlight there is and therefore it creates less energy! So if you want real interstellar travel you need a truly electric space craft that has infinite electric power. Einstein’s theory that nothing can exceed the speed of light is wrong , we just need a space craft that has infinite electric power ‘ solar panels and solar sails are inferior only good for short voyages ! If you want interstellar travel you have to think outside the box ! Every space movie is wrong about how to accelerate through space, you don’t turn your engine on like a car and accelerate, you power up then switch it off then repeat! Each time you pick up more speed until you reach light speed and beyond . Einstein died before we even got to the moon how far have we come since his death and how far has technology come since then to . So I say his theory is wrong ! We just need a new power source . So NASA if you really want true interstellar travel contact me because I have thought outside the box and designed a space craft that has infinite electric power and can go faster than the speed of light the future is here and I have created the technology that can make true interstellar travel possible now not in another 50 years time !

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  • Ian T Hinchey

    My website and tweets @1racetofix1home will convince by collateral evidence, namely the revealing of Newton; Einstein; Hubble; and The Experts (1980sLambda-CDM) as a false direction for science preventing it from going beyond rocketry And the demolition job being collateral evidence along with presenting the only Universe possible. I’ve had the means since 1996, and the planet will be being healed and eventually saved within 4/5 years from start-up

  • CAM

    Didn’t Dawn use an ion thruster?

  • RonRon

    Ioniz energy is the true key to interstellar travel it’s sounds unreal but magnesium thrusters the elections will thrust the craft

  • James

    The Ion drive was first commissioned in the 1990’s and detailed articles on craft tested in space were written in Electronics Australia, which ceased publication in the early 2000’s.

  • Bill

    Fascinating but unlike what some have said this really does not solve some fundamental issues involved in interstellar travel. It will still take lifetimes to travel to other solar systems Paul commented that Einstein’s universal speed limit being the speed of light could be over come by an infinite power source sadly this is not so. The universal speed limit, or the speed of light, is fundamental to the way the universe works. Scientists have found that the faster you go, the more your spatial dimension in the forward direction shrinks and the slower your clock runs when viewed by an external observer space and time are not a fixed background on which everything takes place in the same way it always does. Instead, space and time can warp and bend.

    If you look at the core equations of Einstein’s theories of relativity, you find that as you approach the speed of light, your spatial dimension in the forward direction shrinks down to nothing and your clock slows to a stop.

    The only way to exceed that speed is to use the bending or warping of time and space which is not really going faster than light.

  • Cef. Darklord

    Wow some comments here are so funny. I can’t believe that someone actually said that’s Einstein was wrong. Well for those people I have an idea ask those that working on the large hydron collider and ask them. But back to the text. I think the thing is that the thrust that is needed must be much higher than that what they want to use. It takes years to finally get to the point where there wanna go. Definitely to slow for interstellar travel. It is a nother baby step but it will take not less then 100years or more to make interstellar travel possible..