National Aeronautics and Space Administration Logo
Follow this link to skip to the main content NASA Banner
Solar System Exploration
News & Events
Ion Engine: No Tuneups, No Problems
Ion Engine: No Tuneups, No Problems
30 Jul 2003
(Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

MEDIA RELATIONS OFFICE
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION
PASADENA, CALIF. 91109 TELEPHONE (818) 354-5011
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov

Nancy Lovato (818) 354-9382
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dom Amatore (256) 544-0034
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

News Release: 2003-105
July 30, 2003

Ion Engine Records No Tuneups, No Problems

The future is here for spacecraft propulsion and the trouble-free engine performance that every vehicle operator would like, achieved by an ion engine running for a record 30,352 hours at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The engine is a spare of the Deep Space 1 ion engine used during a successful technology demonstration mission that featured a bonus visit to comet Borrelly. It had a design life of 8,000 hours, but researchers kept it running for almost five years, from Oct. 5, 1998, to June 26, 2003, in a rare opportunity to fully observe its performance and wear at different power levels throughout the test. This information is vital to future missions that will use ion propulsion, as well as to current research efforts to develop improved ion thrusters.

"Finding new means to explore our solar system - rapidly, safely and with the highest possible return on investment - is a key NASA mission," said Colleen Hartman, head of Solar System Exploration at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. "Robust in-space flight technologies such as ion propulsion are critical to this effort and will pioneer a new generation of discovery among our neighboring worlds."

While the engine had not yet reached the end of its life, the decision was made to terminate the test because near-term NASA missions using ion propulsion needed analysis data that required inspection of the different engine components. In particular, the inspection of the thruster's discharge chamber, where xenon gas is ionized, is critical for mission designers of the upcoming Dawn mission. Dawn, part of NASA's Discovery Program, will be launched in 2006 to orbit Vesta and Ceres, two of the largest asteroids in the solar system.

"The chamber was in good condition, " said John Brophy, JPL's project element manager for the Dawn ion propulsion system. "Most of the components showed wear, but nothing that would have caused near-term failure."

Marc Rayman, former Deep Space 1 project manager, said, "There are many exciting missions into the solar system that would be unaffordable or truly impossible without ion propulsion. This remarkable test shows that the thrusters have the staying power for long duration missions."

Ion engines use xenon, the same gas used in photo flash tubes, plasma televisions and some automobile headlights. Deep Space 1 featured the first use of an ion engine as the primary method of propulsion on a NASA spacecraft. That engine was operated for 16,265 hours, the record for operating any propulsion system in space. Ion propulsion systems can be very lightweight, since they can run on just a few grams of xenon gas a day. While the thrust exerted by the engine is quite gentle, its fuel efficiency can reduce trip times and lower launch vehicle costs. This makes it an attractive propulsion system choice for future deep space missions.

"The engine remained under vacuum for the entire test, setting a new record in ion engine endurance testing, a true testament to the tremendous effort and skill of the entire team," said Anita Sengupta, staff engineer in JPL's Advanced Propulsion Technology Group. "This unique scientific opportunity benefits current and potential programs."

"The dedicated work of NASA's Solar Electric Technology Application Readiness test team, led by JPL, continues to exemplify a commitment to engineering excellence," said Les Johnson, who leads the In-Space Propulsion Program at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala. "This work, along with significant contributions from NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, will take NASA's space exploration to the next level."

NASA's next-generation ion propulsion efforts are led by the In-Space Propulsion Program, managed by the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters and implemented by the Marshall Center. The program seeks to develop advanced propulsion technologies that will help near and mid-term NASA science missions by significantly reducing cost, mass or travel times.

JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena for NASA.

An image showing the thruster being removed from the vacuum chamber is available at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA04668 . For more information on NASA and its programs, please see http://www.nasa.gov, http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/ and http://www.msfc.nasa.gov/.

News Archive Search  Go!
Show  results per page
 
 
Awards and Recognition   Solar System Exploration Roadmap   Contact Us   Site Map   Print This Page
NASA Official: Kristen Erickson
Advisory: Dr. James Green, Director of Planetary Science
Outreach Manager: Alice Wessen
Curator/Editor: Phil Davis
Science Writer: Autumn Burdick
Producer: Greg Baerg
Webmaster: David Martin
> NASA Science Mission Directorate
> Budgets, Strategic Plans and Accountability Reports
> Equal Employment Opportunity Data
   Posted Pursuant to the No Fear Act
> Information-Dissemination Policies and Inventories
> Freedom of Information Act
> Privacy Policy & Important Notices
> Inspector General Hotline
> Office of the Inspector General
> NASA Communications Policy
> USA.gov
> ExpectMore.gov
> NASA Advisory Council
> Open Government at NASA
Last Updated: 1 Aug 2003