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.