the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
This is a learning module on ion engines, a newer rocket propulsion technology that uses electric fields instead of chemical or nuclear reactions for powering spacecraft. The ion propulsion system's efficient use of fuel and electrical power enable spacecraft to travel farther and cheaper than other propulsion technology. Students begin their tour with a tutorial on positive and negative charges, then progress to hitting targets using a charge simulator. Next, they look at multimedia materials that explain the inner workings of an ion engine. The activity culminates in an interactive challenge to design an ion engine using what has been learned. At each phase, teachers and learners are provided with background text, teacher guides, and explicit help with the fundamentals of charge interaction.
This resource is part of NASA's Dawn project, whose goal is to shed light on the early evolution of our Solar System by investigating two large asteroids that have remained intact since their formations. Dawn's spacecraft are powered by ion propulsion.
Please note that this resource requires
Java Applet Plug-in.
Editor's Note:See Related Materials for a link to a multimedia lesson on Radioisotope Power Systems, the technology which has been used to power spacecraft since the 1960's. RPS systems produce electric energy by radioactive decay of Plutonium-238, but the supply of this substance has become extremely limited. For additional content support, see link to Science Buddies: Ion Engine Background.
JPL, asteroid belt, exploration, ion engines, ion propulsion, ion thruster, robotic spacecraft, solar system, space exploration, space missions
Metadata instance created
November 2, 2012
by Caroline Hall
November 5, 2012
by Caroline Hall
AAAS Benchmark Alignments (2008 Version)
3. The Nature of Technology
3A. Technology and Science
3-5: 3A/E2. Technology enables scientists and others to observe things that are too small or too far away to be seen otherwise and to study the motion of objects that are moving very rapidly or are hardly moving at all.
6-8: 3A/M2. Technology is essential to science for such purposes as access to outer space and other remote locations, sample collection and treatment, measurement, data collection and storage, computation, and communication of information.
9-12: 3A/H1. Technological problems and advances often create a demand for new scientific knowledge, and new technologies make it possible for scientists to extend their research in new ways or to undertake entirely new lines of research. The very availability of new technology itself often sparks scientific advances.
9-12: 3A/H2. Mathematics, creativity, logic, and originality are all needed to improve technology.
9-12: 3A/H3b. One way science affects society is by stimulating and satisfying people's curiosity and enlarging or challenging their views of what the world is like.
3C. Issues in Technology
6-8: 3C/M8. Scientific laws, engineering principles, properties of materials, and construction techniques must be taken into account in designing engineering solutions to problems.
4. The Physical Setting
4A. The Universe
6-8: 4A/M4. Many chunks of rock orbit the sun. Those that meet the earth glow and disintegrate from friction as they plunge through the atmosphere—and sometimes impact the ground. Other chunks of rock mixed with ice have long, off-center orbits that carry them close to the sun, where the sun's radiation (of light and particles) boils off frozen materials from their surfaces and pushes it into a long, illuminated tail.
9-12: 4A/H3. Increasingly sophisticated technology is used to learn about the universe. Visual, radio, and X-ray telescopes collect information from across the entire spectrum of electromagnetic waves; computers handle data and complicated computations to interpret them; space probes send back data and materials from remote parts of the solar system; and accelerators give subatomic particles energies that simulate conditions in the stars and in the early history of the universe before stars formed.
4E. Energy Transformations
6-8: 4E/M2. Energy can be transferred from one system to another (or from a system to its environment) in different ways: 1) thermally, when a warmer object is in contact with a cooler one; 2) mechanically, when two objects push or pull on each other over a distance; 3) electrically, when an electrical source such as a battery or generator is connected in a complete circuit to an electrical device; or 4) by electromagnetic waves.
4G. Forces of Nature
6-8: 4G/M5. A charged object can be charged in one of two ways, which we call either positively charged or negatively charged. Two objects that are charged in the same manner exert a force of repulsion on each other, while oppositely charged objects exert a force of attraction on each other.
8. The Designed World
8C. Energy Sources and Use
9-12: 8C/H6. The useful energy output of a device—that is, what energy is available for further change—is always less than the energy input, with the difference usually appearing as thermal energy. One goal in the design of such devices is to make them as efficient as possible—that is, to maximize the useful output for a given input.
11. Common Themes
6-8: 11A/M2. Thinking about things as systems means looking for how every part relates to others. The output from one part of a system (which can include material, energy, or information) can become the input to other parts. Such feedback can serve to control what goes on in the system as a whole.
9-12: 11A/H2. Understanding how things work and designing solutions to problems of almost any kind can be facilitated by systems analysis. In defining a system, it is important to specify its boundaries and subsystems, indicate its relation to other systems, and identify what its input and output are expected to be.
6-8: 11B/M4. Simulations are often useful in modeling events and processes.
<a href="http://www.thephysicsfront.org/items/detail.cfm?ID=12458">Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA Jet Propulsion Lab: Ion Engines Interactive. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2009.</a>
NASA Jet Propulsion Lab: Ion Engines Interactive. (2009). Retrieved April 26, 2015, from National Aeronautics and Space Administration: http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/ion_engine_interactive/index.html
Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA Jet Propulsion Lab: Ion Engines Interactive. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2009. http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/ion_engine_interactive/index.html (accessed 26 April 2015).
NASA Jet Propulsion Lab: Ion Engines Interactive. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2009. Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 26 Apr. 2015 <http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/ion_engine_interactive/index.html>.
%T NASA Jet Propulsion Lab: Ion Engines Interactive %D 2009 %I National Aeronautics and Space Administration %C Washington %U http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/ion_engine_interactive/index.html %O text/html
%0 Electronic Source %D 2009 %T NASA Jet Propulsion Lab: Ion Engines Interactive %I National Aeronautics and Space Administration %V 2015 %N 26 April 2015 %9 text/html %U http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/ion_engine_interactive/index.html
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A multimedia overview of radioisotope power systems, a type of nuclear energy technology for powering spacecraft, widely used for 50+ years, but being gradually replaced by technologies such as ion propulsion engines.