In-space propulsion technologies

Saturn V rocket, used for the American manned lunar landing missions

Proposed in-space propulsion technologies describe the propulsion technologies that could meet future space science and exploration needs. These propulsion technologies are intended to provide effective exploration of our Solar System and will permit mission designers to plan missions to “fly anytime, anywhere, and complete a host of science objectives at the destinations” and with greater reliability and safety. With a wide range of possible missions and candidate propulsion technologies, the question of which technologies are “best” for future missions is a difficult one. A portfolio of propulsion technologies should be developed to provide optimum solutions for a diverse set of missions and destinations.[1][2][3]
In-space propulsion begins where the upper stage of the launch vehicle leaves off; performing the functions of primary propulsion, reaction control, station keeping, precision pointing, and orbital maneuvering. The main engines used in space provide the primary propulsive force for orbit transfer, planetary trajectories and extra planetary landing and ascent. The reaction control and orbital maneuvering systems provide the propulsive force for orbit maintenance, position control, station keeping, and spacecraft attitude control.[1][2][3]


1 Current technology
2 Metrics

2.1 Technology area breakdown
2.2 Defining technologies

3 The challenge
4 Primary propulsion technologies
5 See also
6 References
7 Further reading

Current technology[edit]
A large fraction of the rocket engines in use today are chemical rockets; that is, they obtain the energy needed to generate thrust by chemical reactions to create a hot gas that is expanded to produce thrust. A significant limitation of chemical propulsion is that it has a relatively low specific impulse (Isp), which is the ratio of the thrust produced to the mass of propellant needed at a certain rate of flow.[1]

NASA’s 2.3 kW NSTAR ion thruster for the Deep Space 1 spacecraft during a hot fire test at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

A significant improvement (above 30%) in specific impulse can be obtained by using cryogenic propellants, such as liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, for example. Historically, these propellants have not been applied beyond upper stages. Furthermore, numerous concepts for advanced propulsion technologies, such as electric propulsion, are commonly used for station keepin