Mon. Jan 17th, 2022

The US space agency NASA recently launched its DART spacecraft to test a method of defending Earth against threats asteroids.

NASA says DART mission is also testing several new technologies. One of them is one progress system that receives power from the sun. The technology is called solar electric propulsion.

Since the system uses solar energy instead of fuel-based engines, it does not need large, heavy fuel tanks. If the technology succeeds, it could help power a new generation of spacecraft.

NASA officials have said that electric propulsion of solar energy could be important to the agency’s plans for future exploration. This could include planned missions to take astronauts to the moon and Mars.

The solar-powered system included in the DART mission is known as NEXT-C. It was developed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio and built by rocket manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne.

This artist's illustration shows NASA's DART spacecraft, which will be launched to crash into an asteroid to see how the crash affects the spacecraft's path.  (Image credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL)

This artist’s illustration shows NASA’s DART spacecraft, which will be launched to crash into an asteroid to see how the crash affects the spacecraft’s path. (Image credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL)

The technology is based on systems previously used on NASA spacecraft that performed asteroid exploration missions. Researchers working on NEXT-C development said the new system is expected to be “about three times as powerful” as those used previously.

Most propulsion systems use fuel to produce chemical reactions to provide propulsion that moves the spacecraft. NEXT-C is a propulsion system that uses electricity to convert xenon gas to xenon ions. When the ions are released, they give the power to move the spacecraft. Large solar collectors produce electricity from sunlight.

NEXT-C is not the main propulsion system for DART. It was included in the mission to test its effectiveness. However, the technology will be the main propulsion system for the upcoming NASA mission called Psyche.

The Psyche spacecraft will travel to a metal asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. NASA says they expect to launch Psyche in August. The spacecraft will travel about 2.4 billion kilometers over three and a half years to reach the asteroid.

Once in orbit, the mission team will examine data collected by Psyche’s scientific instruments. Scientists believe that the asteroid may be part of the metallic nuclear of an early planet. They say the asteroid could have been separated during violent crashes that occurred during the early formation of our solar system.

In this image, taken in November 2020, technicians turn on the bulk of NASA's Psyche spacecraft - called the Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Chassis - for the first time in a clean room at Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California.  (Image credit:

In this image, taken in November 2020, technicians turn on the bulk of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft – called the Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Chassis – for the first time in a clean room at Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California. (Image credit:

NASA says that when Psyche differs from its launch vehicle, it will depend on solar energy to reach its target. The spacecraft is also expected to get a gravitational push when it passes Mars.

The space agency says the Psyche will be the first spacecraft to use the solar propulsion thrusters beyond our lunar orbit. NASA describes the push as “blid, ”But strong enough to propel the spacecraft on its long journey.

NASA said tests have shown the system to be extremely efficient. Researchers estimate that Psyche’s thrusters “could work for years without running out of fuel.”

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, of Arizona State University, is a NASA investigator and leader of the Psyche Mission. “Even in the beginning, when we first designed the mission in 2012, we talked about solar energy as part of the plan,” she said in a statement. “Without it, we would not have the Psyche mission.”

Paulo Lozano heads the Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He told MIT Technology Review that he believes Psyche can help pave the way for new solar-powered space exploration. The technology could allow longer and less costly missions. “It actually opens up the opportunity to explore and to commercialize space in a way we have not seen before, ”said Lozano.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story based on reports from NASA and the MIT Technology Review. Mario Ritter, Jr. was editor.

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Words in this story

asteroid – n. a rocky object that orbits the sun like a planet

mission – n. an important project or journey that particularly involves space travel

progress – n. the force produced by a system for moving or propelling a vehicle

thrust – n. push or force upwards

nuclear – n. the middle part of a planet

blid – adj. not strong or heavy

commercialize – v. to organize something with the goal of making a profit

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