NASA has awarded funds to a California-based company to develop an advanced, superefficient solar electric propulsion (SEP) system. The next-generation engines may be unveiled soon.
According to Space.com, the space agency has given California-based company Aerojet Rocketdyne $67 million. With the 36-month contract, the company is tasked to design, build and test an advanced SEP system.
NASA officials admitted that these new engines will definitely have a "profound impact on the future of spaceflight." "We basically are building a new drive train that enables whole new platforms for deep-space exploration," Bryan Smith, director of the Space Flight Systems Directorate at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio, said during a news briefing on Apr. 21.
SEP systems are able to convert solar power to electricity which will then be used to accelerate ions out of a nozzle to generate thrust. Engineers have been working on this system for more than 50 years now.
Moreover, SEP engines are said to be more efficient than traditional chemical rockets since it requires less fuel to travel. Ion engines, however, create less thrust than standard rockets so it would take SEP-powered spacecrafts a longer time to get to the destination.
"NASA said it wants Aerojet Rocketdyne to give ion engines more oomph, up to twice the thrust capacity of currently available SEP systems," the publication wrote. "The agency plans to use the advanced ion engines on a variety of missions, including its project to pluck a boulder off a near-Earth asteroid and drag the piece into orbit around the moon. There, astronauts will visit the rock."
Meanwhile, Space News reported that NASA has cut funding for a Mars landing technology project by about 85 percent. This is in response to budget reductions to its space technology program.
James Reuter, NASA deputy associate administrator for space technology, has said the cut was necessary for the fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill which was completed last December. The Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project will be getting just a small fraction of its initial $20 million budget.