With a sinking economy, the Soviet Union has a desperate desire for hard currency. This has led the Soviets to offer more technology to the West. A few months ago, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), which oversees Star Wars research, set eff a buzz when it announced a plan to buy a Russian nuclear reactor used to power satellites. Although the publicity has barely died down over that decision, the Pentagon already has set its sights on another Soviet space system: an electric rocket motor.
The motor uses a technology known as arc jet propulsion, which works much like a light bulb. The difference is that when electricity passes through a wire--the equivalent of a light bulb's filament--the wire spews out charged ions instead of light. That provides a small but very efficient push--just enough to move a satellite slowly from one orbit to another without rocket fuel. "NASA has a major program in arc jets," says one Pentagon official, "but the one the Soviets have is better than our best." SDIO is trying to arrange the purchase of the system through a national lab or a private contractor.