Aerojet Rocketdyne has won a three-year contract to develop a next-gen solar-powered electric propulsion system for deep space.
The NASA contract is valued at $67 million. Aerojet, headquartered in Rancho Cordova, Calif., will stage the project at its Redmond, Wash., facility.
The new propulsion system aims to deliver up to a tenfold improvement in fuel efficiency over chemical propulsion and should more than double the fuel efficiency of current electric propulsion systems. NASA intends to conduct a test mission using the new electric propulsion system by 2020.
Ultimately, the new propulsion system will be used to power manned and robotic deep-space missions by NASA and its commercial spaceflight partners. Such missions are expected to include commercial mining missions to asteroids and space exploration flights to Mars and elsewhere.
In developing the new propulsion system, which will convert solar energy to electricity, Aerojet will base thruster and power-processing unit components on prototypes developed by NASA. The company also will build an engineering development unit for testing and integrating up to four flight units.
The work will be supervised by engineers from NASA’s Glenn Research Center, where the first successful ion electric propulsion thruster was developed in the 1950s. More recent electric propulsion systems mostly use solar power.