NASA's next generation of space propulsion, the ion engine, which shoots ionized molecules for thrust, ran for a whopping 43,000 hours, "the equivalent of nearly five years of continuous operation," all while using less than a ton of fuel.
[...] the amount of thrust is tiny -- about the equivalent of the weight of a coin resting on a table. Where the ion thruster has it over chemical rockets is, firstly, in terms of efficiency -- ion thrusters are 10 to 12 times as fuel efficient as chemical rockets. Secondly, an ion thruster can run for a much longer period of time. Where chemical rockets burn for minutes, ion thrusters can burn for thousands of hours, which allows that tiny amount of thrust to build up into speeds needed for deep space missions.
The NEXT ion thruster is one of NASA's latest generation of engines. With a power output of seven kilowatts, it's over twice as powerful as the ones used aboard the unmanned Dawn space probe. Yet it is simpler in design, lighter and more efficient, and is also designed for very high endurance.
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