NASA’s Office of Space Science in Washington today
announced the selection of a team for the development of an
advanced ion propulsion system – an alternative to
conventional chemical propulsion that could revolutionize the
way we send science missions into the solar system. A second
team was selected to develop advanced ion optics, which are
critical components of ion engines.

The agency’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland was selected
to lead development of the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster
(NEXT) system, which will use xenon gas and electrical power
to drive future spacecraft. Additionally, a team led by
Boeing Electron Dynamic Devices, Inc. of Torrance, Calif.,
was selected to pursue development, fabrication and testing
of carbon-based ion optics, critical components of high-power
ion thrusters that have traditionally limited thruster

“The NEXT ion engine is an exciting next step in ion
propulsion and will enhance a whole host of ambitious new
space science missions,” said Carol Carroll, In-Space
Propulsion (ISP) Program Executive in the Office of Space
Science at NASA Headquarters, Washington.

The NEXT Project is a proposed two-part endeavor. The first
phase is a one-year effort to design, build and test initial
versions of ion thrusters, propellant feed systems and power
processing units, which convert solar array power into forms
useful for the ion engine. At the end of Phase 1, NASA may
exercise a Phase 2 option to complete hardware development
and integrate components into a full-scale system.

The total potential value of the Glenn award over the next
three and one-half years is approximately $21 million. The
total value of the Boeing team award is approximately $4
million. Total NASA funding for NEXT system development
activities is approximately $27 million.

Ion propulsion systems convert electrical power and xenon
propellant into high-speed ion flows that accelerate
spacecraft with fuel efficiencies about ten times higher than
conventional chemical propulsion.

“Technologies such as ion propulsion are key to enabling
shorter mission times and could reduce costs for future space
missions, which permits a greater focus on space science,”
said Les Johnson, In-Space Propulsion manager for NASA’s
Advanced Space Transportation Program at Marshall Space
Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The Marshall Center will
administer both new awards.

An ion thruster converts electrical power and xenon gas into
a high-velocity flow of positively charged ions. Metal grids
that exert an electrostatic force accelerate these ions, much
the same way bits of lint are pulled to a statically charged
comb, but with a dramatically different effect. The
accelerated ions leave the thruster at speeds of up to 89,000
mph, propelling the spacecraft forward. The result: fuel
efficiency that exceeds conventional chemical engines by as
much as a factor of 10.

The new ion thruster development program builds on the
success of the Deep Space 1 mission, a NASA probe launched in
1998 to validate advanced flight technologies. Deep Space 1
was powered by an ion thruster just 12 inches in diameter,
which accelerated the spacecraft to a velocity of 7,900 mph
over a 20-month period.

Deep Space 1 made history during its close fly-by of Comet
Borrelly in September 2001, when it returned the clearest
images and best scientific data ever gathered about a comet.
The success of Deep Space 1 was a first step in the
exploitation of high-power ion propulsion for a broad class
of future space missions, including possible planetary
visits. The NEXT ion engine will be capable of carrying
significantly more payload and have a longer lifetime than
the Deep Space 1 ion engine.

The In-Space Propulsion Program seeks to develop advanced
propulsion technologies that can enable or greatly enhance
near and mid-term NASA science missions by significantly
reducing cost, mass, and/or travel times.

The In-Space Propulsion Program is managed by the Office of
Space Science at NASA Headquarters and is implemented by
Marshall. The program is supported by NASA’s Ames Research
Center in Moffett Field, Calif.; Glenn Research Center,
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., NASA’s
Johnson Space Center in Houston and NASA’s Langley Research
Center in Hampton, Va.

NASA partners with cutting-edge industry leaders, the
nation’s academic institutions and other government agencies
to realize its ambitious in-space propulsion goals.