Rather than generating thrust from chemical reactions between fuels and oxidizers, electric rocket engine technology (specifically, xenon-ion propulsion) uses solar-powered electrode grids to create electrostatic fields that accelerate charged particles (xenon ions) to high exhaust velocities.
With all this interest and activity, it is clear that electric rocket engines are no longer the sole province of astronautical visionaries and sci-fi authors.
It will be the first time a deep space probe will use electric rockets for primary propulsion.
Astronautical engineers say that these two missions are just the beginning of what they expect to be a tremendous increase in the use of electric rockets during the next century.
Electric rockets, on the other hand, generate low thrust levels for extended periods--months, perhaps years, on end.
Electric rockets need much less propellant at launch than chemical systems and can therefore offer spacecraft designers significant savings in propellant mass over their chemical cousins.