Prometheus Nuclear Program Achieves Milestone
NASA's Project Prometheus received a gentle nudge toward reality, courtesy of the first successful test of a High Power Electric Propulsion (HiPEP) ion engine. The event marked the first in a series of performance tests to demonstrate new high-velocity and high-power thrust needed for use in nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) spacecraft.
NASA announced the test success in a November 20 statement.
HiPEP is one of several candidate propulsion technologies under study by Project Prometheus for possible use on the first proposed flight mission, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO). The mission is not proposed for launch before the year 2011.
The HiPEP experiment involved the largest microwave ion thruster ever built. The use of microwaves for ionization would enable very long-life thrusters for spacecraft applications. The test was carried out at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
JIMO's ion thrusters are to be powered by a nuclear fission reactor and a system for converting the reactor's heat to electricity. This could give the craft more than 100 times as much power as a non-fission system of comparable weight.
A heavy lift expendable launch vehicle would place JIMO into high Earth orbit. The ion-propulsion thrusters would spiral the spacecraft away from Earth and then on its way to Jupiter.
JIMO would orbit three different moons of Jupiter where earlier spacecraft discovered evidence for vast saltwater oceans hidden beneath icy surface layers: Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. The proposed flagship mission is also being pursued to raise NASA's capability for space exploration to a new level by demonstrating safe and reliable use of electric propulsion powered by a nuclear fission reactor.
-- Leonard Da