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Propelling a Space Revolution

NASA is working on an ion propulsion system to send nuclear-powered craft to the outer solar system at speeds 10 times that of the shuttle.

June 04, 2005|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

NASA scientists are developing a new ion propulsion system that could enable spacecraft to reach unheard-of speeds and undertake long-term explorations of planets in the outer solar system.

Dubbed Herakles, the system would use an ion beam produced from xenon gas to propel the craft to speeds of 200,000 mph, 10 times faster than the top speed of the space shuttle, according to NASA. Because the technology is much more efficient than conventional propulsion systems, the craft would be able to carry heavier, more sophisticated scientific equipment.

The propulsion system is being developed through NASA's Prometheus Nuclear Systems and Technology program, and by engineers at the Glenn Research Center in Ohio and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.

A Prometheus craft would be launched by conventional chemical rockets, but once it reached space, it would produce thrust by extracting ions from xenon gas and expelling them into space. Although the thrusting begins slowly, the speed constantly increases.

The craft would be powered by an on-board nuclear reactor.

The first ion thruster was installed on Deep Space 1, which was launched in 1998 and conducted a flyby of Comet Borrelly. That system relies on solar energy and loses power as the craft moves away from the sun.

Herakles, which has cost $497 million to develop, and the other elements of a Prometheus craft are scheduled for advanced flight development in 2006.

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