NASA is launching a spacecraft destined to slam into an asteroid as part of its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission tonight, from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Its purpose: to test whether we’re capable of deflecting a killer asteroid before it strikes Earth.
But before it meets its final destination, NASA is using the spacecraft to test out brand new ion drive technology — and it’s straight out of a science fiction movie.
The space agency’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster-Commercial (NEXT-C) uses the spacecraft’s solar power to create an electrical field. This field then accelerates a xenon propellant to speeds of up to 90,000 mph, harnessing the resulting stream of “thousands of ion jets” as propulsion.