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  • Educator Dhonam Pemba
  • Animator Qa'ed Mai
  • Script Editor Eleanor Nelsen

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Additional Resources for you to Explore
For space propulsion, there are different types of thrusters. There are thrusters for in space propulsion and thrusters for launching off the earth. Chemical propulsion has higher thrust, while ion and electric propulsion usually has higher efficiency. There is usually a tradeoff between thrust and efficiency. The specific impulse is a spaceship’s measurement of miles per gallon; it is a measure of how much the spacecraft can change its velocity per fuel used. Chemical rocket engines have high thrust but low specific impulses, meaning they are powerful but run out of fuel fast.

Due to Earth’s gravity and atmosphere, big powerful chemical rockets are needed to launch from the earth’s surface. However, chemical rockets engine run out of fuel before they can reach their maximum attainable speed. Ion thrusters have very high specific impulses but low thrust, which mean they are not powerful, but can provide propulsion for a very long time. They are good for deep space travel because their fuel can last a very long time, which allows them propel spacecraft to very high speeds with low fuel. Although Ion and Electric propulsion has today become accepted technology powering space missions like the Dawn spacecraft towards the asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres, this technology wasn’t popular 15 years ago. Check out “Frequently Asked Questions About Ion Propulsion,” to get some answers to your potential questions.

Deep Space One was launched October 24, 1998 to test out high risk, but high reward technologies. Its success pioneered ion-propelled spacecraft missions. Want to learn about Future Spaceship Power and Propulsion? Watch this documentary.

Today, not only are researchers looking for new ways to develop ion and electric thrusters to propel large spaceships into deep space, but they are also developing small thrusters the size of sugar cubes to drive cubesats, provide precise maneuvers, altitude and repositioning control. NASA’s Game Changing Development Program advances technologies that may lead to new ideas and techniques for space missions and other initiatives. Visit the site! Then, visit the Microdevices Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and see the latest development ideas for microspacecraft.