NASA Commences Testing on Most Sophisticated Solar Electric Propulsion Thrusters

As NASA prepares for its next phase of space exploration, the space agency is already testing its sophisticated thrusters that will play a vital role on the Gateway Space Station before the end of this decade. NASA recently announced that its engineers and Aerojet Rocketdyne have commenced with the multiyear qualification testing on the most advanced solar electric propulsion (SEP) thrusters.

These powerful thrusters will surely revolutionize the propulsion potential of spacecraft in space and help humans to perform exceptionally well among the stars.

Why NASA is seriously working on the Development of the Solar Electric Propulsion Thrusters

NASA and other space agencies have used chemical propulsion to generate millions of pounds in exploring space. In fact, as space research continued to advance, agencies still relied on chemical propulsion in developing advanced rocket systems to reach distant space worlds. Even though the chemical propulsion system has remained the standard means of exploring space in this era, space agencies are suggesting that it is still not the best means of reaching advancing our space voyages.

This is because chemical propulsion mandates spacecraft to take massive amounts of propellants onboard while making their way to space. In fact, the amount of propellants that these space rockets are expected to carry increases if they will return to Earth after exploring space. Unlike chemical propulsion systems, electric propulsion does not require a massive amount of fuel on board the spacecraft.

Electric propulsion also propels faster than the traditional propulsion system currently in use. Hence, space agencies have every reason to choose electric propulsion over chemical propulsion. Since electric propulsion lowers the amount of propellant required for the mission while increasing speed, NASA is considering it worthy of future space exploration.

The Standard Features of Solar Electric Propulsion

Solar electric propulsion uses electricity to ionize inert gases like Krypton or Xenon, making it a more reliable propulsion system for deep space exploration. The system also uses a magnetic or electrostatic field to propel these ions and drives them out of the thruster to improve the propulsion speed of the rocket.

Scientists revealed that that the electricity used to ionize the gases can be obtained from sunlight directly. Space agencies will also use Electric propulsion drives to alter the speeds of spacecraft and make them change their trajectories during the mid of the mission.

How NASA is planning to implement the Solar Electric Propulsion on the Lunar Gateway


NASA has remained optimistic about its plans to implement Solar electric propulsion on the lunar gateway. In fact, the American space agency has already tested the solar electric propulsion on its Dawn Mission, showing its readiness to that this futuristic propulsion system to the next level.

The agency is currently getting ready to demonstrate the most sophisticated version of solar electric propulsion built on the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) on the lunar Gateway, which is the outpost that should be in the lunar orbit before the end of this decade. NASA is building the Gateway as a 60kW-class space station and 50kW of the station will be channeled toward propulsion.

Aerojet Rocketdyne revealed that it has successfully built an electric propulsion system which was nicknamed the Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS). NASA revealed that AEPS at 12kW is twice as powerful as the most advanced electric propulsion system ever built. However, AEPS will still have to go through a series of testing before it can be qualified to be an official part of the PPE on the Gateway.

NASA and Aerojet partnered to commence with years of testing on one of the qualification units, which are familiar to the thrusters that will operate on the Gateway in 2025 during its ascent. Once the verification process is over, NASA and Aerojet engineers will expose the propulsion system to extreme temperatures, shock, vibration, and other simulating conditions it may encounter during the launch and spaceflight of the NASA Artemis mission.

The next qualification unit will commence in 2024. During that testing, the propulsion systems will pass through a series of tests that copies the orbit raising and transition to lunar orbit maneuvers. NASA is planning to conduct all these tests in massive vacuum chambers located at NASA Glenn Research Center.

What NASA and Aerojet Engineers Have to Say About the SEP

The science behind solar electric propulsion is absolutely fascinating. NASA and Aerojet engineers believed that the AEPS will surely revolutionize the future of space exploration.

“This testing campaign is a big deal,” said Rohit Shastry, the lead AEPS engineer. “It’s kind of the final leg before we test the thrusters that will actually fly on Gateway.”

Both firms will conduct this testing passing different phases including 23,000 hours of operation for the thrusters which will last for a four years duration. NASA and Aerojet engineers will carefully place the thrusters on the PPE of the Gateway after the test.

“With NASA missions, launch dates are critical,” said Clayton Kachele, the AEPS project manager at NASA Glenn, in the press statement. “In this case, NASA is trying to expedite the process, and we’re doing it intelligently. We will complete a few thousand hours of wear testing to prove successful operations before PPE launches. We’ll then complete the final 15,000 hours or so to fully qualify AEPS for future customers.”

Scientists from NASA and Aerojet are cooperatively working to bring the full potential of this solar electric propulsion system into a reality.


As NASA and other space agencies prepare to put the Gateway in orbit around the moon, the agencies are working on several fascinating technologies that will bring this goal into reality. Solar electric propulsion systems will surely revolutionize the orbiter space station that will orbit the moon before the end of this decade. What do you think about this propulsion system?

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