Solar electric propulsion

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Artistic view of Deep Space 1, showing both the solar panels and ion engine (with blue exhaust), major aspects of this solar electric design. Solar energy may also be temporarily stored in chemical battery inside the spacecraft bus
The Dawn spacecraft's Xenon tank prior to integration with spacecraft. The Xenon was the propellant for the solar-power ion drive of the spacecraft which would go on to orbit two different asteroids in the early 21st century
Roll-out solar panel tested in Earth Orbit at the International Space Station, 2017

Solar electric propulsion (SEP) typically refers to the combination of solar cells and an ion drive to propel a spacecraft through outer space.[1] This technology has been exploited in a variety of spacecraft by the European Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency, Indian Space Research Organisation and NASA.[1] SEP is valued for its potential for a high specific impulse, thus allowing less mass for propellant to be launched with a spacecraft and it has been evaluated for mission to Mars.[2]


Solar electric propulsion combines solar panels on spacecraft and ion thrusters, used in tandem. However, there are a number of other types of electrically powered spacecraft propulsion such as arcjet rockets. It may not employ an ion drive, of which there is a variety of types also.

It is also possible to generate electricity from the Sun without using photovoltaic panels, such as with solar concentrators and a Stirling engine.

A 50 kilowatt SEP system was studied in the 2010s for a mission to an asteroid.[3] In February 2012 NASA awarded a contract for a Solar Electric Propulsion Flight System .[4]

An example of work on this type of technology is Advanced Electric Propulsion System.[5]

The NASA Solar Technology Application Readiness (NSTAR) ion engine has been used with photovoltaic solar panels, which was tested on the Deep Space 1 mission along with Solar Concentrator Arrays (Launched in 1998 as part of the New Millennium Program) [6][7]

SEP has been studied as a technology for a mission to Mars.[8] In particular the high specific impulse of the ion engines could lower overall mass and avoid having to use nuclear technology for power when coupled with solar panels.[9] A 1998 study for SEP for a human mission suggest that a human-sized spacecraft would need 600 to 800 kilowatts of electrical power coupled with ion engines with a specific impulse of 2000 to 2500 seconds.[10]

Mission examples[edit]

Electric propulsion technologies[edit]

Category:Ion engines

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Mohon, Lee. "Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP)". NASA. Retrieved 2016-04-24.
  2. ^ Solar Electric Propulsion for Mars Exploration NASA, 2005-01-08.
  3. ^ "Solar Electric Propulsion: NASA's engine to Mars and Beyond - SpaceFlight Insider". Retrieved 2018-07-28.
  4. ^ "NASA Awards Solar Electric Propulsion Flight System Contract".
  5. ^ "Advanced Electric Propulsion System successfully tested at NASA's Glenn Research Center - SpaceFlight Insider". Retrieved 2018-07-28.
  6. ^ "Advanced Technologies". NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Retrieved 20 November 2016.
  7. ^ "In Depth | Deep Space 1 – Solar System Exploration: NASA Science". Solar System Exploration: NASA Science. Retrieved 2018-08-08.
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ [
  10. ^ [2]
  11. ^ BepiColombo Fact Sheet European Space Agency, 2010-07-05.