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Electronic Rocket Could Travel to Mars

Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc. is already on board to develop and build the engines to take NASA’s new heavy lift rocket on deep space missions and potentially to Mars. Now the Sacramento company was awarded a $67 million contract last month from NASA to produce an electric propulsion system that would be used on a future mission to ferry cargo to the red planet. Engineers at the Chatsworth facility of Aerojet Rocketdyne will be designing, developing, assembling and testing the power processing unit of that system. Jerry Jackson, program manager of electric propulsion at Aerojet Rocketdyne, said the work is a further refinement of the experience the company has in developing power processing units. The new propulsion system will go beyond what is now state-of-the-art by taking a unit generating 4 kilowatts to 5 kilowatts and increasing that to 12.5 kilowatts, he added. “We are excited because we are taking something to a larger ability to handle commercial needs, space needs, by doubling the capability of the system, which means you’re doubling the power and doubling the thrust,” Jackson said. “Everything is going up.” There are two types of propulsion systems used on space vehicles – chemical fuels that are burned with the exhaust going out a nozzle that causes the craft to move; and electrical, which is weaker and uses ions released from xenon gas. The benefit of electrical propulsion is that it can last 30,000 hours to 40,000 hours whereas chemical propulsion ends after several minutes, Jackson said. “When there is constant acceleration over three years you can get some serious speed,” he added. NASA foresees using the electric propulsion system on any future Mars missions because it can be used to send cargo ahead of a spacecraft carrying humans. “When you want to get humans to Mars, you would use chemical (propulsion) because it would get them there much quicker,” Jackson said. Electrical propulsion would also be used on NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission scheduled for launch in 2021 that will have a spacecraft remove a chunk from a near-Earth asteroid and put it into orbit around the moon for further study. The propulsion system can also be used on satellites sent into space by Aerojet’s commercial customers, Jackson said. With more than 1,000 workers, Aerojet Rocketdyne is one of the largest employers in the west San Fernando Valley. Additional employees could be brought on for the power processing unit work on a selected basis to meet skills not met by current staff, Jackson said. “We’re penciled in for a certain amount of hiring and that falls to the discipline areas to work out,” he said. – Mark R. Madler

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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