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On the Cusp of Ion Propulsion

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It's not warp drive, but the next generation of ion propulsion drives developed by NASA Glenn could be ready for science missions in just a few years. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.

Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 10:03 am

It looks a little like an oversized snare drum and while it's running, it emits a beam of blue light. NASA Glenn's next generation of the ion propulsion drive is ready to be tested in preparation for its first space mission. Mike Patterson is the chief investigator for Glenn's ion propulsion research.

Mike Patterson: What we do is we generate a plasma, like you have in a florescent tube, and then we extract ions - positively-charged particles - at high velocities using a series of electrodes that have high voltage on them. So you get an energetic, very high-velocity ion band.

Patterson says the ion drive, fueled by the gas xenon, will allow unmanned scientific space missions to go farther, faster, and carry larger payloads. NASA Glenn first developed the technology in the 1950's and tested the first model on Deep Space One in 1999. While no mission for the new drive has yet been chosen, researchers hope to put ion engines to a real space test in the next 5-6 years. Karen Schaefer, 90.3.