Performing Hall-effect Thruster Experiments to Investigate More Efficient Uses of Plasma in Propulsion

A critical part of successful space-based missions is ensuring that a satellite can attain and maintain its required orbit and orientation. These maneuvers, known as “station-keeping,” rely on precise and repeatable firings of a satellite’s thrusters. For engineers on the ground, calculating and executing these precise thruster burns requires detailed knowledge of how propulsion technologies will perform in space.

Hall-effect thrusters are a plasma-based electric propulsion technology offering greater fuel efficiency than chemical thrusters, and have increasingly become the option of choice for many commercial and defense missions. Balancing benefits like propellant mass reductions with tradeoffs in maneuver durations is critical: selecting the right thruster system can result in a mission’s success or failure.

Designing, configuring, and testing these complex systems can be challenging. Hall-effect thrusters must be in a vacuum environment to operate, and have been observed to operate differently in space than in ground-test facilities. Understanding the system and its interactions with the space environment requires specialized testing facilities like large vacuum chambers, supplemented by a breadth of highly specialized equipment and experts in satellite propulsion technologies, plasma physics, and electromagnetics. Applying multi-domain knowledge to tests and experiments will allow for a better theoretical understanding of these devices, and enable their successful use in space environments.

Combining these resources and expertise is a key differentiator of an open innovation approach. Riverside Research’s multidisciplinary Open Innovation Center experts conduct research to improve the propulsion community’s ability to understand how ground test conditions influence thruster operations. Their plasma physics experiments are a source for novel model validation data and enable researchers to study plasma instabilities found in Hall-effect thrusters. Understanding plasma instabilities is important for understanding how best to use plasmas for propulsion or other engineering applications.

The Riverside Research plasma research group performs Hall-effect thruster experiments in their large vacuum chamber, which emulates a low-earth-orbit environment. This research is intended to collect data from Hall-effect thrusters operating under precisely-controlled plasma and magnetic field parameters. This data will be used to validate system integration models and create detailed device simulations.

“Our plasma research facility and the experts who support it are an exceptional example of the power of multi-disciplinary research and development,” says Riverside Research President and CEO, Dr. Steve Omick. “This new test capability paves the way for pioneering plasma research and is the product of collaboration among senior-level technical experts across our plasma, optics, and electromagnetics laboratories. This is a critical capability in providing leading-edge space-based mission research.”