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Neptune: Neutralizer-free plasma propulsion

Scientists study neutralizer-free plasma propulsion for spacecraft

Date:
May 23, 2017
Source:
American Institute of Physics
Summary:
Plasma propulsion concepts are gridded-ion thrusters that accelerate and emit more positively charged particles than negatively charged ones. To enable the spacecraft to remain charge-neutral, a 'neutralizer' injects electrons to exactly balance the positive ion charge in the exhaust beam, but this neutralizer requires additional power from the spacecraft. Researchers are investigating how the radio-frequency self-bias effect can be used to remove the neutralizer altogether.
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Plasma propulsion is an important and efficient technology used to control spacecraft for Earth observation, communications and fundamental exploration of outer space.

Plasma propulsion systems use electric power to ionize propellant gas and transform it into the fourth state of matter, known as plasma. Electrically charged ions and electrons are accelerated in an exhaust beam to generate thrust and propel the spacecraft.

The most established electric propulsion concepts, for example gridded-ion thrusters, accelerate and emit a larger number of positively charged particles than those with negative charge. To enable the spacecraft to remain charge-neutral, a "neutralizer" is used to inject electrons to exactly balance the positive ion charge in the exhaust beam. However, the neutralizer requires additional power from the spacecraft and increases the size and weight of the propulsion system.

A team from the University of York and École Polytechnique is investigating how the neutralizer can be removed altogether. The researchers report their findings this week in the journal Physics of Plasmas, from AIP Publishing.

In 2014, Dmytro Rafalskyi and Ane Aanesland from the Laboratory of Plasma Physics, École Polytechnique, France demonstrated a new electric propulsion concept. The concept, called Neptune, leverages the technological heritage of gridded-ion thrusters. However, as comparable numbers of positively and negatively charged particles are present in the exhaust beam the neutralizer is no longer needed.

To further develop the Neptune concept towards spaceflight, the researchers were interested in understanding how the plasma interacts with the acceleration system so that a charge-neutral beam is generated. They teamed up with James Dedrick and Andrew Gibson from the York Plasma Institute, University of York, U.K. to study how plasma behavior varies in relation to spatial location, time and particle energy.

"The direct observation of how energetic plasma species behave on nanosecond timescales in the Neptune beam will help us to better control the processes that underpin neutralization," Dedrick said.

As part of their investigation, the researchers studied the dynamics of negatively charged energetic electrons in the exhaust beam of the thruster and their behavior was observed to play a key role in beam neutralization.

"We believe that this arises from a complex interaction between the plasma and acceleration grids, which is highly dependent upon the particle dynamics nearby to the grid surface," Dedrick said.


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Materials provided by American Institute of Physics. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. James Dedrick, Andrew Robert Gibson, Dmytro Rafalskyi, Ane Aanesland. Transient propagation dynamics of flowing plasmas accelerated by radio-frequency electric fields. Physics of Plasmas, 2017; 24 (5): 050703 DOI: 10.1063/1.4983059

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American Institute of Physics. "Neptune: Neutralizer-free plasma propulsion." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 May 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170523124203.htm>.
American Institute of Physics. (2017, May 23). Neptune: Neutralizer-free plasma propulsion. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 20, 2024 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170523124203.htm
American Institute of Physics. "Neptune: Neutralizer-free plasma propulsion." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170523124203.htm (accessed May 20, 2024).

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