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NASA unveils ion drive prototype

Ion propulsion is preferred for deep space cruising because it's more fuel-efficient

PASADENA, Calif.—Surrounded by engineers, NASA chief Charles Bolden inspected a prototype spacecraft engine that could power an audacious mission to lasso an asteroid and tow it closer to Earth for astronauts to explore.

Bolden checked on the progress a month after the Obama administration unveiled its 2014 budget that proposes $105 million to jumpstart the mission, which may eventually cost more than $2.6 billion.

Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and Glenn Research Center in Ohio are developing a thruster that relies on ion propulsion instead of conventional chemical fuel.

Once relegated to science fiction, ion propulsion—which fires beams of electrically charged atoms to propel a spacecraft—is preferred for deep space cruising because it’s more fuel-efficient. Engine testing is expected to ramp up next year.

During Thursday’s visit to the JPL campus, nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles, Bolden viewed an engineering model of the engine and peered through a porthole of a vacuum chamber housing the prototype.

NASA is under White House orders to fly humans to an asteroid as a stepping stone to Mars. Instead of sending astronauts all the way to an asteroid, as originally planned, the space agency came up with a quicker, cheaper idea: Haul the asteroid close to the moon and visit it there.

The space agency would launch an ion-powered unmanned spacecraft to snare a yet-to-be-selected small asteroid in 2019 and park it in the moon’s neighbourhood. Then a spacewalking team would hop on an Orion space capsule that’s currently under development and explore the rock in 2021.

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