Also known as a Hall Thruster, it uses electric and magnetic fields to ionize gases like xenon and expels the ions to produce thrust.
The technique is much cleaner, safer and more fuel efficient than traditional chemical rockets, but the trade off is relatively low thrust and acceleration.
Eileen Drake, Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and president, said: “By staying on the cutting edge of propulsion technology, we have positioned ourselves for a major role not only in getting back to the Moon, but also in any future initiative to send people to Mars.
“AEPS is the vanguard for the next generation of deep space exploration and we’re thrilled to be at the mast.”
The core technology – the Hall thruster – is already in use for manoeuvring satellites in orbit around the Earth.
But thrust capability will now be more than doubled compared to current electric propulsion systems, increasing hopes of man visiting the Red Planet.
And work performed under the contract could potentially increase spaceflight transportation fuel efficiency by 10 times over current chemical propulsion technology.
Aerojet Rocketdyne says it has now successfully completed its early systems integration test for the radical engine.
It is developing a 13-kilowatt Hall thruster string for NASA.
The test at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, proved the system’s ability to successfully convert power at a high efficiency level, producing minimal waste heat.
The team will now move into the design finalisation and verification phase leading up to the critical design review (CDR), in which the design will be finalised and cleared for production.
The AEPS thrusters could be used on the power and propulsion element of NASA’s Gateway, the agency’s lunar orbiting outpost for robotic and human exploration operations in deep space.
Built with commercial partners, the power and propulsion element will demonstrate 50-kW class solar electric propulsion to support exploration on and near the Moon, and beyond, including Mars.
The most powerful Hall thruster in orbit right now is 4.5 kilowatts.
That’s enough to adjust the orbit or orientation of a satellite, but it’s too little power to move the massive amounts of cargo needed to support human exploration of deep space.
A number of exciting discoveries this year have reinvigorated public interest in planet Mars.
In June, NASA’s Opportunity rover found the first evidence of complex organic compounds beneath the surface of Mars – remains which were potentially left behind by ancient life.
A Hall thruster works by accelerating the plasma exhaust to extremely high speeds.
The process starts with a current of electrons spiralling through a circular channel.
On their whirlwind journey from the negative electrode at the exhaust end to the positively charged electrode on the inner side of the channel, they run into atoms (typically xenon gas) that are fed into the chamber.
The collisions knock electrons off the xenon atoms and turn the xenon into positively charged ions.
The electrons’ spiralling motion also builds a powerful electric field that pulls the gas ions out the exhaust end of the channel, creating thrust.
Just enough electrons leave with the ions to keep the spacecraft from accumulating a charge, which could otherwise cause electrical problems.