Ring of Firepower: Electric Hall Thruster for NASA’s Psyche Spacecraft Propulsion

An electric Hall thruster, identical to those that will be used to propel NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, undergoes testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The blue glow is produced by the xenon propellant, a neutral gas used in car headlights and plasma TVs. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, set to launch in August 2022, will travel to its target in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter under the power of super-efficient electric propulsion. This photo captures an operating electric Hall thruster identical to those that will be used to propel the Psyche spacecraft. This photo was taken at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California on May 20, 2020 with an iPhone, through the thick window of a vacuum chamber used to simulate the environment of deep space.

The thruster works 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. The xenon plasma emits a blue glow, seen here, as it operates. An observer in space traveling behind Psyche would see the blue glow of plasma trailing behind the spacecraft. Solar arrays will provide the electricity that powers the thrusters. Hall thrusters will be used for the first time beyond lunar orbit, demonstrating that they could play a role in supporting future missions to deep space.

Arizona State University in Tempe leads the Psyche mission. JPL is responsible for the mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and test, and mission operations. Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, is providing the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis.