Hypersonic missile fails + Space mission will test higher-power electric thrusters

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Air Force's new hypersonic missile fails to launch during key test flight

INTRO: Some more work will be required to get the U.S. Air Force's new hypersonic weapon up to speed. That system, known as the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), is designed to launch in midair from beneath the wing of a carrier plane.

The missile was supposed to do that for the first time on Sunday (April 5), during a powered test flight off the coast of Southern California. But the prototype ARRW booster failed to deploy as planned from its B-52H Stratofortress, and the plane returned to Edwards Air Force Base with the missile still attached.

"The ARRW program has been pushing boundaries since its inception and taking calculated risks to move this important capability forward," Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, Armament Directorate Program Executive Officer, said in an Air Force statement. "While not launching was disappointing, the recent test provided invaluable information to learn from and continue ahead. This is why we test." (MORE)

NASA’s most metal mission will test new, higher-power electric thrusters

EXCERPTS: A satellite company named Maxar recently delivered a passenger van-sized chunk of spacecraft to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. This chassis will serve as the backbone for a robotic spacecraft that will explore a metallic asteroid for the first time. This ambitious mission, named Psyche after the eponymous asteroid it will explore, is due to launch next summer on a Falcon Heavy rocket.

Once in space, the spacecraft will use an innovative means of propulsion, known as Hall thrusters, to reach the asteroid. This will be the first time a spacecraft has ventured into deep space using Hall thrusters, and absent this technology, the Psyche mission probably wouldn't be happening—certainly not at its cost of just less than $1 billion.

[...] Engines powered by chemical propulsion are great for getting rockets off the surface of the Earth when you need a brawny burst of energy to break out of the planet's gravitational well. But chemical rocket engines are not the most fuel-efficient machines in the world, as they guzzle propellant. And once a spacecraft is in space, there are more fuel-efficient means of moving around.

One of these is solar electric propulsion, which uses solar panels to capture energy from the Sun, which in turn ionizes and accelerates a gas—typically xenon—to produce a thrust. It's not much of a thrust. Actually, it's exceptionally light. Each of the thrusters on the Psyche mission maxes out at about the same force as that exerted by two or three quarters in the palm of one's hand. But because they are so fuel-efficient, solar electric thrusters don't burn for a few minutes at a time. They burn for months, producing a steady acceleration.

NASA has been experimenting with this technology for a while. The space agency first tested electric propulsion technology in its Deep Space 1 mission, which launched in 1998, and later in the Dawn mission in 2007 that visited Vesta and Ceres in the asteroid belt.

These spacecraft used ion thrusters. Hall thrusters, by contrast, use a simpler design, with a magnetic field to confine the flow of propellant. These thrusters were invented in the Soviet Union and later adapted for commercial purposes by Maxar and other companies. Many of the largest communications satellites in geostationary orbit today [...] But now, for the first time, they're being used for a deep space mission. NASA and Maxar believe the technology is ready, but it still needs to be proven out in a new environment... (MORE)

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