NASA scientists are developing a new ion propulsion system that could enable spacecraft to reach unheard-of speeds and undertake long-term explorations of planets in the outer solar system.
Dubbed Herakles, the new system would use an ion beam produced from xenon gas to eventually propel the craft to speeds of 200,000 mph, 10 times faster than the top speed of the space shuttle.
Because the new technology is much more efficient than conventional propulsion systems, the craft will be able to carry heavier, more sophisticated scientific equipment.
The new propulsion system is being developed through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Prometheus Nuclear Systems and Technology program, and by engineers at the Glenn Research Center in Ohio and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, Calif.
A Prometheus craft would be launched by conventional chemical rockets, but once it reached space it would produce thrust by extracting ions from xenon gas and expelling them into space.
Although the thrusting begins slowly, the speed constantly increases over time.
Herakles has so far cost $497 million to develop.