Design Engineering

NASA Improves Solar Electric Propulsion for Space Exploration


General Aerospace NASA propulsion

Solar electric propulsion is key for long-duration, deep-space robotic science and multiple destination missions.

NASA electric propulsion

Advanced solar electric propulsion will be needed for future human expeditions into deep space. Here is a 13-kilowatt Hall thruster being evaluated at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
Credits: NASA

Aerojet Rocketdyne is set to design and develop an advanced electric propulsion system for NASA.

The Space Agency selected the company to help advance commercial space capabilities, and enable deep space exploration missions, including the robotic portion of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and its Journey to Mars.

The Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) contract is a 36-month cost-plus-fixed-fee contract with a performance incentive and total value of $67 million.

NASA is hoping that work developed under the contract will increase spaceflight transportation fuel efficiency and enhance thrust capability.


“Through this contract, NASA will be developing advanced electric propulsion elements for initial spaceflight applications, which will pave the way for an advanced solar electric propulsion demonstration mission by the end of the decade,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in Washington. “Development of this technology will advance our future in-space transportation capability for a variety of NASA deep space human and robotic exploration missions, as well as private commercial space missions.”

The integrated electric propulsion system will consist of a thruster, power processing unit (PPU), low-pressure xenon flow controller, and electrical harness. NASA has developed and tested a prototype thruster and PPU that the Aerojet Rocketdyne can use as a reference design.

The company will construct, test and deliver an engineering development unit for testing and evaluation in preparation for producing the follow-on flight units.

Aerojet Rocketdyne also had the option to develop, verify and deliver four integrated flight units—the electric propulsion units that will fly in space.

NASA anticipates solar arrays will generate the electrical power to operate the propulsion flight system in space.

NASA has increasingly relied on solar electric propulsion for long-duration, deep-space robotic science and exploration missions to multiple destinations.

The advanced electric propulsion system is the next step in NASA’s Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) project, which is developing critical technologies to extend the range and capabilities of ambitious new science and exploration missions.


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