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November 24, 2020

DART Spacecraft Outfitted with Next-Gen Technology Demonstration Propulsion System

Image of Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft

APL, which manages and is building NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), led the installation of NEXT-C onto the spacecraft on Nov. 10, with team members from Aerojet Rocketdyne on hand to support the process.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman


Image of Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft

The DART team lifted the thruster bracket assembly off of the assembly table and positioned it at the top of the spacecraft, a delicate and challenging move that required several team members to ensure everything went smoothly. “This took some care as the thruster's propellant lines extended below the bottom of the bracket ring and could have been damaged if the lift was not performed properly,” said APL’s Jeremy John, lead propulsion engineer on DART.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman


Image of Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft

Once the NEXT-C thruster was safely lowered atop the spacecraft's central cylinder, fasteners were installed to secure the thruster to the DART spacecraft. The team then connected the electrical harnesses and propellant lines between the thruster bracket assembly and the spacecraft. With DART successfully outfitted with NEXT-C, both propulsion systems are now fully installed on the spacecraft, and the next step will be to put the systems through environmental testing at APL.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

Currently coming together in a clean room at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft will be outfitted with several new technologies. These technologies will be demonstrated on DART’s journey toward its asteroid target Dimorphos that is part of the Didymos binary asteroid system.

Earlier this month, the APL team working on the DART spacecraft installed one of those technologies: NASA’s NEXT-C (NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster-Commercial) ion propulsion system. Set for launch next summer, the DART spacecraft will be the first demonstration of a kinetic impactor — a spacecraft deliberately targeted to strike an asteroid at high speed in order to change the asteroid’s motion in space. The DART mission was designed to demonstrate this critical planetary defense capability.

Developed by NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Washington, NEXT-C is a solar-powered electric propulsion system designed for improved performance and fuel efficiency compared to its predecessors. Although NEXT-C is not the primary propulsion system on DART, its inclusion on the mission will allow for in-flight testing and demonstrate the potential for application to future deep-space missions.

APL, which manages and is building DART, led the installation of NEXT-C onto the spacecraft on Nov. 10, with team members from Aerojet Rocketdyne on hand to support the process. Additional team members, including some from NASA Glenn, supported the installation from afar over a video stream.

Careful Coordination

The delicate process took an entire day and relied on the coordinated efforts of the on-site team and their virtual partners.

“The biggest part of that process was lifting the thruster bracket assembly off of the assembly table and positioning it at the top of the spacecraft,” said APL’s Jeremy John, lead propulsion engineer on DART. “This took some care as the thruster's propellant lines extended below the bottom of the bracket ring and could have been damaged if the lift was not performed properly.”

Once the thruster was safely lowered atop the spacecraft’s central cylinder, fasteners were installed to secure the thruster to the spacecraft. The team then connected the electrical harnesses and propellant lines between the thruster bracket assembly and the spacecraft.

The team spent several days preparing critical components to ensure a seamless integration.

“With DART successfully outfitted with NEXT-C, both propulsion systems are now fully installed on the spacecraft,” John said, adding that the systems will soon go through spacecraft environmental testing at APL. The tests mimic the conditions the spacecraft will experience during launch and in space.

DART is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in late summer 2021. It is the first flight mission specifically built for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. Follow the mission at dart.​jhuapl.edu.

Media contact: Justyna Surowiec, 240-228-8103, Justyna.Surowiec@jhuapl.edu

The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit www.jhuapl.edu.