Ion propulsion, also known as solar electric propulsion, has been under development since the 1950's. Harold Kaufman, an engineer at the N.A.S.A. Glenn facility, built the first ion engine in 1959 and in 1960, NASA Glenn undertook a space flight test program called, Space Electric Rocket Test (SERT). In 1964, the N.A.S.A. Glenn facility launched two ion engines on a Scout rocket, one of the two thrusters on board did not work, but the other one operated for nearly thirty minutes. A follow up mission called SERT 2 had two ion thrusters, one operating for three months, and the other one operating for nearly five months. The early ion engines used mercury or cesium as fuel. In SERT 1, one ion engine used mercury and the other used cesium. In SERT 2, both ion engines used mercury. Current ion engines use xenon as fuel, but the overall design of the engines has not changed since the 1950's. In the 1960's, the Hughes Research Laboratories continued the ion projects and designed a xenon-fueled ion engine launched in 1979 on the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory's Spacecraft Charging at High Altitude (SCATHA) satellite. In addition, Hughes launched the first commercial ion engine aboard a Russian communication satellite. These ion engines were used to keep satellites in orbit and orientation. The Deep Space 1 ion engine was designed for possible interplanetary travel. Interplanetary travel is closer than one would think, by examining the purpose, design, and future applications of ion engines, not only interplanetary travel is in the near future, but also traveling beyond our solar system could be next.
The main purpose for the Deep Space 1 (DS1) project was to test an ion engine for possible planetary travel. N.A.S.A. and J.P.L. teamed up together on a project called NASA Solar Electric Power Technology Application Readiness (NSTAR) to develop a prototype xenon ion engine. N.A.S.A. Glenn built the ion engine and than tested the engine in a vacuum chamber at J.