Image of the Day: Ion thruster sets world record

You won't get much thrust out of an ion thruster: compared to a chemical rocket engine, they're not all that impressive. What makes ion thrusters so great is their ability to put out small amounts of thrust very efficiently and for a very long time, and NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster has now been operating for 43,000 hours. That's nearly five years straight.

The NEXT ion thruster is 10-12 times more fuel efficient than a chemical engine, but it operates at such low levels of thrust that it might take 10,000 hours of non-stop operation to get a spacecraft out to the asteroid belt or beyond. NASA needs to be sure that these engines are very reliable, so the agency has been doing a lot of testing here on Earth, with the eventual goal of sending ion engine-powered spacecraft on tours to multiple asteroids, comets, and the outer planets and their moons.

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