Space

NASA's NEXT ion thruster runs five and a half years nonstop to set new record

NASA's NEXT ion thruster runs ...
The NEXT ion thruster has run for 48,000 hours (Image: NASA Christopher J. Lynch (Photo: Wyle Information Systems, LLC))
The NEXT ion thruster has run for 48,000 hours (Image: NASA Christopher J. Lynch (Photo: Wyle Information Systems, LLC))
View 3 Images
1/3
NASA Glenn engineer performs verification tests of the imaging diagnostic suite for assessment of the NEXT engine (Photo: NASA)
2/3
NASA Glenn engineer performs verification tests of the imaging diagnostic suite for assessment of the NEXT engine (Photo: NASA)
The NEXT ion thruster has run for 48,000 hours (Image: NASA Christopher J. Lynch (Photo: Wyle Information Systems, LLC))
3/3
The NEXT ion thruster has run for 48,000 hours (Image: NASA Christopher J. Lynch (Photo: Wyle Information Systems, LLC))

On Monday, NASA announced that its advanced ion propulsion engine operated for 48,000 hours, or five and a half years – and that’s without stops for fuel or coffee. Developed under NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) project, the engine now holds the record for the longest test duration of any type of space propulsion system.

NEXT is a solar electric propulsion system where electricity from the spacecraft’s solar panels is used to power a a 7-kW class ion thruster. In this, particles of xenon gas are electrically charged and then accelerated to speeds up to 90,000 mph (145,000 km/h). Such thrusters have already been used on spacecraft, such as NASA’s Dawn probe, and engineers are very interested in them because of their much higher performance compared to conventional chemical rocket engines.

NASA Glenn engineer performs verification tests of the imaging diagnostic suite for assessment of the NEXT engine (Photo: NASA)
NASA Glenn engineer performs verification tests of the imaging diagnostic suite for assessment of the NEXT engine (Photo: NASA)

The test was carried out in a vacuum chamber at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, where the NEXT thruster continually fired day and night. In December, it had already passed 43,000 hours of operation and when it passed 48,00 hours it had consumed 1,918 lb (870 kg) of xenon propellant and generated a total impulse that would take over 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) of conventional rocket propellant for comparable applications.

NASA hopes to use NEXT or some version of it in a wide range of deep space missions. The thrust made by an ion engine is tiny compared to a chemical rocket, but its very high efficiency combined with its ability to fire for years on end means that it can build up astonishing speeds over time. As for the test model, it is on its way to a well-deserved retirement as it is switched off.

"The NEXT thruster operated for more than 48,000 hours," says Michael J. Patterson, principal investigator for NEXT at Glenn. "We will voluntarily terminate this test at the end of this month, with the thruster fully operational. Life and performance have exceeded the requirements for any anticipated science mission."

Source: NASA

20 comments
Mark A
Excellent research, now donate it to the San Diego Air and Space Museum for all to enjoy.
Slowburn
I think they should keep it running until it dies. It would take a very long time for a few little tugs to clean up LEO.
BigGoofyGuy
I agree with Mark A, it should go to a musuem where others can see how cool it is and how it is the first step into the future.
notarichman
Nah, LEO would be a good use for it. But mining an asteroid might be better. setting up a space station in the asteroids to mine several of them might even be better. i wouldn't want that duty.
Bill Cumming
Just wondering how fast a probe with 5,000lb of xenon fuel it would be moving after 10 years under thrust?
Buellrider
I want one to replace the ICE in my Prius.
BeWalt
To check the force that would propel your Prius with this ion thruster, get a standard issue 100 gram chocolate bar (go for the dark 85% cocoa!) and eat three-quarters. Then, take the rest and put it on your flat hand. The force you need to hold that piece of chocolate is about equal to the thrust from this engine. But no worries - remember people pointing out how much stronger horses are when they saw the first motor cars? Things take time...
Nodnarbisc
@Bill Cumming This doesn't exactly answer your question, but I calculate that a 5,000lb spacecraft putting out 1lb of thrust would be going about around 1.3 million mph after 10 years.
Gene
Interesting article. I was wondering what the velocity and/or temperature of the exhaust is? Is there any chance at all that the ion thruster technology will ever be able to accelerate protons to a high enough energy so the p+Boron fusion reaction can be made to happen? For the uninformed this is a clean nuclear reaction producing no nasty radioactive byproducts.
Paul Bedichek
I don't think it's ever going to go faster than the exhaust of 90,000 mph.