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Pulsed power units
Pulsed power units are arrayed around the business end of MSNW’s thruster. (MSNW Photo)

How will we send humans to the moon, Mars and other destinations in space? The chances are good that electric propulsion will play a role, and a company called MSNW is at the cutting edge of that technology.

The director of propulsion research for Redmond, Wash.-based MSNW, Anthony Pancotti, will take a share of Capitol Hill’s spotlight on Thursday during a hearing organized by the House Subcommittee on Space. And he expects to learn as much from his encounter with lawmakers as they’ll learn from him.

“We’re all curious about what Congress wants to talk about,” Pancotti told GeekWire from Washington, D.C., on the eve of the hearing.

MSNW is already nearly two years into its work on a high-power electric propulsion thruster for a NASA program called Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP. The program’s aim is to accelerate the development of advanced propulsion systems for space exploration.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond office is also part of the NextSTEP program. For years, Aerojet has been working on electric propulsion systems, including a 4.5-kilowatt thruster subsystem that played a key role in the Pentagon’s AEHF satellite system.

Electric propulsion isn’t suited for launching payloads from Earth’s surface, but it works like a charm for moving payloads around in space. NASA has already used the technology on small robotic probes such as Deep Space 1 and Dawn. Now the space agency wants to scale it up for heavier-duty applications.

NextSTEP’s objective is to boost the power capacity of electric propulsion thrusters from around 5 kilowatts to beyond 50 kilowatts. MSNW and Aerojet are both working on 100-kilowatt thrusters.

“This is a pretty big jump,” Pancotti said.

When MSNW began its work on the $1.5 million contract, NASA was planning to use electric propulsion to send a probe out to an asteroid and bring a piece of it back for study.

This year, NASA set aside its Asteroid Redirect Mission, also known as ARM. But the space agency still wants to capitalize on electric propulsion for other journeys beyond Earth orbit – including cislunar space, which is the region of outer space in the vicinity of the moon.

“The technology does transition very well from ARM to cislunar space, or directly to Mars,” Pancotti said. “It will be very exciting to see which direction we head.”

MSNW’s thruster electromagnetically forms, accelerates and ejects high-density, magnetized blobs of plasma. The big advantage of electric propulsion is that it can produce steady thrust with less fuel than a conventional chemical rocket requires.

With a conventional propulsion system, “a couple percent of the total mass is going to make it to your destination – let’s say the surface of Mars,” Pancotti said. In contrast, an electric propulsion system could transfer 70 percent of total mass from low Earth orbit to a deep-space destination.

“That’s a huge game changer,” Pancotti said.

MSNW thruster
MSNW’s thruster is being tested at the company’s lab in Redmond, Wash. (MSNW Photo)

Another advantage is that virtually any type of propellant can be used. For the NextSTEP tests, MSNW will be using inert xenon and argon gases – but theoretically, it could use water from an asteroid, or carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere.

MSNW plans to conduct a dry run of the thruster without propellant, to show that it can stand up to the heat that’s generated by the device. “One hundred kilowatts, you’re talking about a lot of heat,” Pancotti said. The thermal demonstration could take place as early as August, he said.

Thursday’s hearing, which focuses on the strategic choices and options for in-space propulsion, is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. ET (7 a.m. PT).

In addition to Pancotti and Aerojet’s Joe Cassady, the experts scheduled to testify include former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, founder and CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company; Mitchell Walker, chair of the propulsion technical committee at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; and two of NASA’s associate administrators, Bill Gerstenmaier and Steve Jurczyk.

Update for 9:45 p.m. PT July 1: The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, had lots of good things to say about advanced propulsion technologies at the hearing. Here’s a quote from his opening statement:

“The next-generation in-space propulsion technologies under development by three of today’s witnesses will be critical to ensuring that the exploration of Mars is possible, sustainable, and affordable.”

Babin was fired up by what he heard:

You can read the written statements submitted by Gerstenmaier and Jurczyk, Walker, Chang-Diaz, Cassady and Pancotti. You can also watch an archived video of the whole hearing (starting at the 24-minute mark):

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