Although NASA landed the Curiosity Rover on Mars nearly a year ago, there are many independent space exploration companies like SpaceX and Mars One who are trying to be the first to set foot on the Red Planet. NASA is still in the lead, however, when it comes to space exploration technology. They are currently developing a xenon-ion propulsion engine that could take us that much closer to sending manned missions to Mars.
As reported by io9, NASA plans to use the xenon-ion propulsion engine to send an unmanned spacecraft to retrieve an asteroid in 2019. Once the probe captures the asteroid, it will transport it to a new location near the Moon. The 2019 mission will accomplish a few things: it will test the new xenon-ion propulsion engine, gather data on future manned missions to Mars, and find out if we can redirect incoming asteroids. NASA will later send a spacewalking team aboard the still-under-development Orion space capsule to research the asteroid in 2021.
Rather than good ol’ fashioned rocket fuel, the xenon-ion engine uses magnetic fields to generate propulsion. The new engine prototype, also known as the Hall effect thruster, is powered by an odorless and inert xenon gas. It combines high energy and negatively charged electrons with the xenon gas in a confined and safe body. When a mini-collision produces a second electron within the engine, thrust is created. It emits a stunning blue glow that originates from photons released by the ions. The prototype is currently housed in a vacuum chamber at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.