NASA wants to use the sun to power future deep space missions

NASA wants to use the sun to power future deep space missions

While other spacecraft, such as Lucy, have used solar power to power the instruments, Psyche will be among the first NASA missions into deep space to use solar power for both onboard operations and propulsion.

Psyche could lay the groundwork for further space exploration using solar energy, says Paolo Lozano, director of the Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ultimately, this technology could help us investigate many celestial bodies for longer periods, potentially making manned missions beyond Earth’s orbit affordable and feasible.

“It actually opens up the potential for space exploration and commercialization in a way we’ve never seen before,” Lozano says.

Because spacecraft using solar and electric propulsion require less fuel than chemical powered ones, they have more space onboard for cargo, scientific instruments, and one day astronauts. One company, Accion Systems, is developing more efficient ion thrusters for cubic satellites as well as for larger satellites and other spacecraft.

Solar propulsion technology is already common in Earth-orbiting satellites, but so far it hasn’t been a powerful enough alternative to chemical-powered engines for use often in spacecraft bound for deep space. Advances in solar electric propulsion will change that.

The technology behind Psyche has undergone its first major testing in Dawn, an exploratory spacecraft that uses solar energy and ion thrusters. Dawn finally fell silent while orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres (where it will remain in orbit for decades) in 2018, three years after the mission ended. These thrusters can operate for years without running out of fuel, but they provide relatively low thrust compared to conventional thrusters.

Psyche’s thrusters will be able to generate three times as much thrust as their predecessors, and about a year after launch, they’ll get some help from Mars’ gravity to change course before they finally reach their goal in 2026.

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