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

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.

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.”

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To prep against a massive asteroid strike, NASA wants India’s help

Saving humanity from a mega-asteroid strike could be the next big effort in co-operation between USA and India.

The American space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is looking to actively co-operate with India on how best to avert the possibility of humans getting wiped out if a large asteroid were to strike the Earth.

Memories of a big meteorite striking Russia in spectacular fashion on February 15, which injured 1,500 people, are still very fresh.

Speaking exclusively to NDTV’s Science Editor Pallava Bagla in Vienna, NASA chief and former astronaut Charles Bolden said the asteroid issue will be high on his agenda when he visits India next week as part of the large delegation being led by Secretary of State John Kerry for the Indo-US strategic dialogue to be held in New Delhi.

Mr Bolden will consult in detail with K Radhakrishnan, the chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), about how to develop technology “to move a civilisation-killer out of a collision course” with Earth.

Mr Bolden said “humanity should not go down the route of dinosaurs”, which are known to have been wiped out when a giant asteroid struck the Earth. This generated a huge dust column, which blocked out sunshine for a long period, making dinosaurs extinct.

NASA has been mandated by US President Barrack Obama to examine the possibility of landing humans on an asteroid in the next decade and humans on Mars in the next 25 years.

But before undertaking the next human space flight, NASA hopes to polish its skills with full international collaboration on how to nudge a small asteroid that could be on collision course with the Earth.

Mr Bolden says by 2018, it will launch a $2 billion mission to gently nudge a small 500 metric tonne asteroid by “capturing it and redirecting it away from Earth towards the moon.”
ISRO has already announced that it wants to launch an unmanned mission to closely study an asteroid soon.

NASA and ISRO co-operated successfully for India’s maiden mission to the moon, Chandrayaan-1. In 2008, their collaborative efforts led to the first clinching evidence of the presence of water on the moon.


Aerogel: See-Through, Strong as Steel and Lighter than Air

Despite its incredibly low density, aerogel is one of the most powerful materials on the planet. It can support thousands of times its own weight, block out intense heat, cold and sound – yet it is 1,000 times less dense than glass, nearly as transparent and is composed of %99.8 air. The lowest-density silica-based aerogels are even lighter than air.
Despite its fragility in certain regards and its incredible lack of density, aerogel has amazing thermal, acoustical and electrical insulation properties as illustrated by the images here. A single one-pound block can also support half a ton of weight. NASA continues to find new space-based applications for this incredible material.
An aerogel window one inch thick has the effective insulative capacity of a ten-inch thick glass window system. While it is still expensive and has other limitations, this material – originally developed nearly a century ago but still undergoing experimentation – could prove to be one of the most influential materials of the 21st Century.
Aside from its other capabilities, aerogel also has amazing absorbing abilities. Some speculate it could be the future solution to oil spills. It is also being tested as a possible slow-release drug deliver system for potential human patients.