Aerojet Rocket has been selected by NASA to develop a Solar Electric Propulsion system and the project is worth $67m. It will be used for robotic missions when travelling to an asteroid and other journeys connected to the Mars programme.

The normal system used to send rockets outside the Earth’s atmosphere is chemical propulsion, but here there is less of a thrust but less fuel is used and thrust lasts longer. The vacuum of space is the ideal place to use SEP, especially as when the spacecraft is expected to be on the mission for a long period of time.

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NASA Invests Into Solar Electric Propulsion For Space Exploration
A Hall thruster tested at NASA Glenn Research Center/ Image courtesy of NASA

NASA Invests Into Solar Electric Propulsion For Space Exploration
Illustration of the Dawn spacecraft with its SEP system / Image courtesy of NASA

Solar energy is turned into electricity ad this is how the thrust occurs. This form of technology has been on NASA’s radar since the 1950s and the Dawn spacecraft uses it while it is orbiting Ceres the dwarf planet and a couple of other extra-terrestrial bodies. Thrust capacity will hopefully be doubled and also, fuel efficiency should be 10 times the chemical propulsion amount.

The contract is to last for 36 months and covers the building, testing and delivering the scheme with the ultimate hope being the delivery of 4 electrical propulsion units that are capable of flying in space. Steve Jurczyk has said that these tests will lead the way for solar electric propulsion on display and this should happen by the end of the decade. NASA is making an overall push to take forward the SEP. The largest tests will be carried out on SEP systems with eventual use to be on a mission in the 2020’s.