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NASA contracts Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop a new electric system for deep-space vehicles

NASA

NASA has awarded a $67 million contract to rocket engine manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne, in order to create new type of electric propulsion system that could be used for deep space exploration missions. NASA eventually wants to use this type of propulsion on its future Asteroid Redirect Mission, as well as the space agency's ultimate Mars mission plans.

It's a technique that uses way less fuel than chemical propulsion

Unlike typical chemical propulsion, which uses chemical reactions to produce thrust, electric propulsion relies on, you guessed it, electricity. Solar panels on a spacecraft convert sunlight into an electric charge, which is used to excite and accelerate the probe's on-board propellant. This ionized propellant is then driven out the back of the spacecraft, producing thrust that moves the vehicle forward. It's a technique that uses way less fuel than chemical propulsion. NASA has already used electric propulsion for some of its missions, including the Dawn spacecraft that is now orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt.

But the space agency wants its electric propulsion to be even more robust than it is now. As part of the new 36-month contract, Aerojet is meant to develop an Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) that is 10 times more efficient than current chemical propulsion systems and has twice as much thrust as the electric propulsion that has already been developed. Aerojet's system is supposed to have a thruster, a power system, and a module for controlling the propellant's flow. NASA has also given Aerojet a prototype thruster and power system that the company can use as a guide.

The plan is to use this advanced electric propulsion on the robotic portion of NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission; that involves sending an uncrewed spacecraft to an asteroid, capturing a boulder off of the space rock, and then transporting the piece into orbit around the Moon. That mission is slated to happen sometime in the mid-2020s. Beyond that, NASA said electric propulsion will be incorporated into its Journey to Mars initiative, but did not say how.

But we'll find out a bit more about this technology soon enough. The space agency plans to hold a press conference on Thursday at 11:30AM ET, which will go into more detail about this electric propulsion development.