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Heavy duty ion engine that can save our planet

In July 2021 there will be an innovative experiment to change the course of movement of the real asteroid. The purpose of the experiment is an object called Didim-B, the smaller in a system of two asteroids Didim, located 11 million km from Earth. To overcome this distance and hit the asteroid, the DART spacecraft specially prepared for this mission will receive the latest ion engine, the NEXT-C.



NEXT-C is approximately three times more powerful than the previous NSTAR series ion engines used in NASA's DAWN and Deep Space One missions. Its power reaches 6.9 kW, thrust is over 236 mN, and its impulse is a record 17 mNs. The engine uses xenon as fuel, which passes through an accelerator consisting of two grilles. The first one is supplied with electricity from solar panels, thanks to which gas ions get positive charge. The second grid is negatively charged - the ions are attracted by the force and fly through it to the outside, creating traction.

The NEXT-C is now fully assembled and has already passed basic tests and confirmed its performance. It has been further tested for severe overloads from takeoff from the Earth and also tested for long-term exposure to space cold. The flight will not last long, about two months, but the engineers want to be sure of the correct approach to the target - the success of the mission depends on it.

The DART spacecraft will forcefully collide with the Didim-B asteroid during the final phase of the mission, creating a crater of about 20 m in diameter and giving the 160 m stone a certain impulse. According to the calculations of scientists, it will change the orbital velocity of the asteroid at 0.5 mm per second - this is very little, but it is enough for telescopes on Earth to record the fact of displacement. Or everything will come out the other way round and the DART strike will be useless - all this we will see very soon, in 2021.


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