Ion thrusters are being designed for a wide variety of missions – from keeping communications satellites in the proper position to propelling spacecraft throughout our solar system. But, what exactly is ion propulsion and how does an ion thruster work? Great question! Let’s take a look:
Regular rocket engines: You take a gas and you heat it up, or put it under pressure, and you push it out of the rocket nozzle, and the action of the gas going out of the nozzle causes a reaction that pushes the spacecraft in the other direction.
Ion engines: Instead of heating the gas up or putting it under pressure, we give the gas xenon a little electric charge, then they’re called ions, and we use a big voltage to accelerate the xenon ions through this metal grid and we shoot them out of the engine at up to 90,000 miles per hour.
Something interesting about ion engines is that it pushes on the spacecraft as hard as a single piece of paper pushes on your hand while holding it. In the zero gravity, frictionless, environment of space, gradually the effect of this thrust builds up. Our Dawn spacecraft uses ion engines, and is the first spacecraft to orbit two objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
To give you a better idea, at full throttle, it would take our Dawn spacecraft four days to accelerate from zero to sixty miles per hour. That may sounds VERY slow, but instead of thrusting for four days, if we thrust for a week or a year as Dawn already has for almost five years, you can build up fantastically high velocity.
Why use ion engines? This type of propulsion give us the maneuverability to go into orbit and after we’ve been there for awhile, we can leave orbit and go on to another destination and do the same thing.
As the commercial applications for electric propulsion grow because of its ability to extend the operational life of satellites and to reduce launch and operation costs, we are involved in work on two different ion thrusters of the future: the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) and the Annular Engine. These new engines will help reduce mission cost and trip time, while also traveling at higher power levels.