Exciting news is coming out of the world of propulsion. In a talk this week in Denver, Michael Patterson, the principal investigator on NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (or NEXT) program, said that the next generation ion engine could go into production as soon as January 2010, and be completed sometime around 2013. The news comes after NASA completed testing for the NEXT ion propulsion system.
"We made it physically bigger, but lighter, reduced the system's complexity to extend its lifetime, and, overall, improved its efficiency," Patterson said.
Lesser ion engines have propelled previous NASA missions, such as the Deep Space 1 exploratory craft that returned images and data from Comet Borrelly, and the Dawn mission, which has an ion-powered craft heading toward the outer edges of the solar system.
Ion propulsion, which involves electrostatically accelerating ionized Xenon gas to generate thrust, is attractive when compared to chemical thrusters, as the rocket doesn't have to spare a good portion of its payload for fuel. At the same time, ion engines rely on power sources such as solar energy, which loses its effectiveness the farther the craft gets from the sun, and nuclear power, which, politically, is an unpopular power source for a spacecraft.
But hey, if all this ion business falls through we can always fall back on 10,000 mph scram jets. Zoom!