NASA is Budgeting for ‘Star Wars’ Engines

Because how else will we land on asteroids?

A TIE fighter.
National Journal
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Alex Brown
March 5, 2014, midnight

If NASA wants to land on an as­ter­oid by 2025, it’s go­ing to need bet­ter ion thrusters.

You know, ion thrusters, the en­gines from Star Wars. TIE fight­er, after all, stands for twin ion en­gine.

The agency’s fisc­al 2015 budget, re­leased Tues­day, in­cludes $133 mil­lion for the early stages of its mis­sion to send as­tro­nauts to land on, cap­ture, and re­dir­ect an as­ter­oid. In­cluded in its goals for the year? “Ad­van­cing sol­ar elec­tric propul­sion and cap­ture sys­tems.”

Sol­ar elec­tric propul­sion is NAS­Aspeak for ion thrusters, which hit xen­on gas with an elec­tric­al charge, then emit it as ex­haust at speeds of nearly 19 miles per second, pro­pelling the space­craft. That can send a ship at 10 times the speed of chem­ic­al pro­pel­lants, though with much slower ac­cel­er­a­tion.

An ion thruster in ac­tion. (Cour­tesy of NASA)

NASA’s plan is to use its ad­vanced ion thrusters to send a long-range ship equipped with ro­bot­ics to cap­ture an as­ter­oid. That ship will then pull the as­ter­oid closer to Earth, where as­tro­nauts can land on and study it.

The agency’s pre­vi­ous budget asked for $105 mil­lion for the as­ter­oid pro­gram.


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