The development of the thruster has been overseen by Alec Gallimore, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, who said: “Hall thrusters can be optimised either for carrying equipment with minimal energy and propellant over the course of a year or so, or for speed - carrying the crew to Mars much more quickly.”
Beyond making missions to Mars more cost-effective, the reduced transit times are also intended to reduce the amount of radiation astronauts will be exposed to as they travel between Earth and Mars.
During a recent test, the X3 Hall-effect thruster, which is being developed by NASA's Glenn Research Center in conjunction with the US Air Force and the University of Michigan, shattered the previous record for a Hall-effect thruster, achieving higher power and superior thrust, achieving 5.4 newtons of force compared with the old record of 3.3 newtons.
This test was the culmination of more than five years of research which sought to improve upon current Hall-effect designs.
NASA Glenn's setup is the only one with a vacuum pump powerful enough to create the conditions necessary to keep the exhaust clean. A custom thrust stand was also built to support the X3's 227kg frame and withstand the force it generates.
After 20 hours of pumping to achieve a space-like vacuum inside the chamber, a series of tests where the engine would be fired continuously for 12-hours. Over the course of 25 days, the team brought the X3 up to its record-breaking power, current and thrust levels.
Looking ahead, the team plans to conduct more tests in Gallimore’s lab at U-M using an upgraded vacuum chamber, scheduled to be completed by January of 2018.