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Artist's impression of Dawn orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA)

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has recovered from an unexpected phenomenon that resulted in the robotic explorer going into safe mode on September 11, mirroring a similar event that affected the spacecraft three years ago as it approached the protoplanet Vesta. Dawn was launched in September 2007 atop a Delta II-Heavy rocket with a mission to explore Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres.  Read More

NASA's Asteroid Grand Challenge is aimed at protecting the Earth while exploiting asteroid...

On June 18, the NASA Asteroid Grand Challenge was announced to a flood of media inattention. This was probably to be expected, as NASA actually said very little about it. Maybe so as to not attract the ire of forces in the US Congress that are trying to shut down the largest portion of this Grand Challenge; namely the capture and relocation of a seven-meter (23 ft) asteroid to a stable lunar orbit for study and as a practice site for asteroid exploration and exploitation. We've dug up the formal Request for Information (RFI) associated with the Grand Challenge, which gives a better idea of where NASA wants to put its money.  Read More

The NEXT ion thruster has run for 48,000 hours (Image: NASA Christopher J. Lynch (Photo: W...

On Monday, NASA announced that its advanced ion propulsion engine operated for 48,000 hours, or five and a half years – and that’s without stops for fuel or coffee. Developed under NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) project, the engine now holds the record for the longest test duration of any type of space propulsion system.  Read More

An electrohydrodynamic lifter in action (Photo: Anonymous59.)

Imagine an aircraft that is silent, invisible to infrared detectors, has zero emissions and can hover in an eerie manner that helicopters can’t. Now imagine it coming from technology currently used to suck dust out of living room air. That’s what a team of researchers at MIT is doing. They've conducted a study that indicates that ionic thrusters, currently a science fair curiosity, might one day take to the skies.  Read More

An ion engine test for Deep Space One (Photo: NASA/JPL)

The phrase "engage the ion drive" still has the ring of a line from Star Wars, but these engines have been used in space missions for more than four decades and remain the subject of ongoing research. Ion engines have incredible fuel efficiency, but their low thrust requires very long operating times ... and therein lies the rub. To date, erosion within such an engine seriously limits its operational lifetime. Now a group of researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has developed a new design that largely eliminates this erosion, opening the gates for higher thrust and more efficient drives for manned and unmanned missions to the reaches of the Solar System.  Read More

NASA's NEXT engine (Photo: NASA)

NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) ion engine has set a new world record by clocking up 43,000 hours of continuous operation at NASA’s Glenn Research Center’s Electric Propulsion Laboratory. The seven-kilowatt thruster is intended to propel future NASA deep space probes on missions where chemical rockets aren't a practical option.  Read More

The ionic motor developed at EPFL is designed to extend the capabilities of the new genera...

Researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have created a prototype mini motor designed to extend the capabilities of the new breed of small satellite. The motor weighs roughly 200 grams (7 oz) – including the fuel and control electronics - and could be used to change the orbit of small satellites, or even propel them to more far flung destinations that would usually require larger, more expensive spacecraft.  Read More

ESA's BepiColombo spacecraft

There's no air to breathe, it's 400 degrees Celsius and you are six long years away from home. Welcome to Mercury, the smallest and perhaps most mysterious planet in the Solar System. The European Space Agency (ESA) is aiming to increase our knowledge of the Sun's closest neighbor by launching its BepiColombo spacecraft to the planet Mercury in 2014. One of the key challenges faced by the mission is not just getting there, but also how to apply the brakes against the Sun’s gravitational pull when you do... and that's where QinetiQ's solar-electric ion propulsion system comes in. The company has just announced a £23m contract with EADS Astrium for the supply of its system for the BepiColombo mission.  Read More

The VASIMR engine could make a manned flight to Mars in about a sixth of the time of conve...

Last week, as the world celebrated the first lunar landing, Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins both called for NASA to make Mars its next goal. But the chemical propulsion system that took them to the moon would take six months, at least, to get a man to Mars and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. However, a new ion plasma rocket being developed by another former astronaut, Franklin Chang-Diaz, could potentially reach Mars in just 39 days using a fraction of the fuel.  Read More

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