This Ion Engine May One Day Save Us from an Asteroid Collision

Flying part of NASA's DART mission, this engine will assist in redirecting an asteroid.
Fabienne Lang
Ion engineNASA

Here's a brief apocalyptic scenario and question: an asteroid comes hurtling towards Earth, how do you stop it from blowing us into smithereens? 

Luckily for us, NASA and ESA, among other international space agencies, are working hard at answering this question, and are preparing an upcoming practice run in Space for such a situation not to occur. 

NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is due to launch on July 22, 2021, and will practice heading up to the asteroid, Didymos, and knocking away its accompanying satellite, Didymoon. 


What is DART?

DART is a demonstration mission to see how kinetic impact could deflect an asteroid's course. In the 2021 DART mission, Didymos and Didymoon are not in fact on a collision course with Earth, but they offer an interesting opportunity for a practice run. 

Simply put, NASA and ESA's DART will make its way to Didymos, to knock Didymoon off course 

This Ion Engine May One Day Save Us from an Asteroid Collision
DART mission, Source: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab

Joining the journey will be six of the Italian Space Agency's photo-taking CubeSats, as well as a follow-up spacecraft by ESA called Hera. Hera will be crucial in determining whether or not we can definitely manipulate an asteroid's trajectory if it's heading for Earth. 

Ion engine

To be able to pull such a task off, DART requires some serious horsepower in order to make it all the way to Didymos, situated 11 million km (6.8 million miles) away from us. This is where NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster - Commercial ion engine (NEXT-C) comes in. NEXT-C is composed of a thruster and a power-processing unit and was made by NASA researchers at its Glenn Research Center and by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Washington. 

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This Ion Engine May One Day Save Us from an Asteroid Collision
Two different views of the DART spacecraft, Source: NASA

NEXT-C has some power behind it. Different from a rocket, it doesn't require a lot of thrusts to lift something away from Earth's gravity. In terms of ion drives, it's powerful. It's approximately three times more powerful than NASA's NSTAR ion drives on DAWN.

NEXT-C can produce 6.9 kW thrust power and 236 mN thrust. 

CEO and President of Aerojet Rocketdyne Eileen Drake said "Serving as the primary propulsion source for DART, NEXT-C will establish a precedent for future use of electric propulsion to enable ambitious future science missions. Electric propulsion reduces overall mission cost without sacrificing reliability or mission success."

This Ion Engine May One Day Save Us from an Asteroid Collision
Simulated image of the Didymos system, Source: NASA/Naidu et al., AIDA workshop
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