Aerospace Plays Big Role in NEXT Big Thing

Mark Crofton measures movements made by the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) during testing. (Photo: Heather Golden/The Aerospace Corporation)

Aerospace, in partnership with NASA, is on the cutting edge of the next big thing in ion engine propulsion – the aptly named NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT).

What is the NEXT?

The NEXT, which was developed at the NASA Glenn Research Center, is the newest generation of electric ion thrusters and has a fuel efficiency that is 5-to-20 times greater than a chemical thruster.  Fuel efficiency can be “chosen” to best match mission needs.

Ion thrusters have a lower level of thrust than their chemical counterparts, but each exhaust particle moves much more quickly as it exits, so less propellant mass can do the same job. While they are not powerful enough to launch a vehicle into space, their higher specific impulse (a measure of fuel efficiency) opens up new possibilities for future deep space exploration and longer trips to explore far off asteroids or planets, as well as new motion-intensive applications in near-Earth space.

“This is one of the ways to get very far in a feasible way,” said Mark Crofton, senior scientist, Propulsion Science Department. “You could say it’s got great gas mileage and can run forever.” Crofton is one of the handful of Aerospace scientists who has worked with the NEXT.

The uniqueness of the solar-powered NEXT engine, however, has mostly to do with its very long lifespan compared to any other thruster, chemical or electric, and improved performance capability relative to other ion engine designs.  It can operate at high power levels – up to seven kilowatts and beyond, and process large amounts of propellant over its lifetime. Continue reading…