NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) project has successfully completed a five-and-a-half-year test of their ion propulsion system, running the engine continuously for over 48,000 hours.
Ion engines like NEXT are more energy efficient than traditional rockets, as they weigh much less while still achieving high speeds (NEXT is capable of achieving 90,000 miles per hour). This means they’re perfect for deep space missions, or missions requiring more room/cargo aboard the spacecraft.
Of course, ion engines are already in use. They’ve been part of a number of space missions, including NASA’s Deep Space 1 and Japan’s Hayabusa asteroid-rendezvous mission. Experiments involving ion thrusters have been performed since the early 1900s. However, the NEXT project has given us an idea of just how far they can go, and no doubt we’ll see even greater advances in the future.