Could Plasma Jet Thrusters Kickstart Interplanetary Travel?

by Nancy Atkinson on November 1, 2012

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A great offshoot from commercial space companies getting a foothold in real missions to orbit is that the old entrepreneurial space spirit seems to have been revived. People are attempting to develop and build what could be breakout space technologies, sometimes in their garages or basements. A new Kickstarter project is especially exciting, as it is looking to build a prototype electric pulsed plasma jet thruster, and the engineers behind the project say this could be used for reliable, high performance, low cost interplanetary space transportation.

UPDATE: HyperV has reached its Kickstarter goal and will be funded.

A group plasma physics researchers started a company about 8 years ago called HyperV, and they have come up with a new design for basic pulsed plasma jet technology. It runs on superheated ionized particles, and the engineers envision it could be used for orbital maneuvering, asteroid/comet rendezvous, orbital debris cleanup and interplanetary transportation.

They say that using this kind of electric propulsion would significantly reduce the mass and weight of spacecraft, resulting in more affordable missions. Although there are other types of electric propulsion systems that have been used for space travel – with mixed results — the HyperV team believes their new design offers solutions to problems in previous designs, and will ultimately provide cheaper and more robust space travel.

The team describes their project:

We believe our thruster technology has the potential to be just as efficient as existing electric thrusters (such as ion and Hall effect thrusters) and with similar specific impulse. But our advantages will be derived from a thruster that is less complex (and much more robust), which can use a variety of propellants including gases, inert plastics, and propellants derived from asteroids, Mars, the Moon, etc., It will also be far cheaper to build, and can be more readily scaled to larger sizes and very high power levels than current electric propulsion systems. Our plasma thruster technology should be scalable from a few kilowatts all the way up to megawatts of average power. The electricity which is needed to power electric thrusters would most likely come from new high performance solar panels, but could also utilize other compact energy sources. From a practical viewpoint for satellite design, our thruster will have much higher thrust per unit area than ion or Hall thrusters, thus taking up less room on the rear of the spacecraft.

They predict their prototype could produce a specific impulse (Isp) of 2000 sec, which is an equivalent to an exhaust velocity of 20,000 m/s.

They are looking to raise $69,000 by November 3, 2012 to get their project started. At the time of this writing, the team has just over $54,000.

Here’s a video from HyperV:

“We invite you, the citizens of Earth, to join with us as we design, construct, test, and execute this demonstration,” the team wrote on their Kickstarter page. “The culmination of this project will be an all-up, laboratory demonstration of our prototype thruster.”

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

EBM-Radio November 1, 2012 at 8:17 PM

Spellcheck anyone?

Torbjörn Larsson November 2, 2012 at 6:59 PM

Just “thust” us!

Ookmon November 1, 2012 at 8:22 PM

Very impressive!

Ian McLeod November 1, 2012 at 11:46 PM

Wish I wasn’t beyond dirt poor, would definitely donate. Well worth project.

Aqua4U November 2, 2012 at 1:03 AM

Hmmm… wary interesting! for investors anyway? Questions about power supply, manufacturing capability, prior investment portfolio and scientific credentials come to mind. Of course, it’s a ‘no brainer’ that should this concept prove successful and reach maturity, there would be a few more billionaires out there walking around! Double hmmm…. I wonder if they need any help from a ‘forced into’ semi-retirement electro-mechanical designer?

Peristroika November 2, 2012 at 3:01 AM

Wow, that is exciting and great to see the investor’s vid! Yes, I wonder (haven’t checked ) if some of that other info is on their web site. Like to work with guys with a sense of humour. Love the 1950′s impressive music at the beginning and end!

torque xtr November 2, 2012 at 8:41 AM

So, basically we have plasma-railgun tweaked for operations in space… Quite unexpected – It isn’t clear how they are going to cope with the erosion of acceleration electrodes. The VASIMR design looks more robust because plasma doesn’t contact electrodes there… But the idea of kickstarting novel electrical propulsion is fascinating nevertheless!

Chetan Chauhan November 2, 2012 at 9:30 AM

Coupled with a fission reactor , something like this could provide some serious impulse for those REALLY long voyages . The only problem with plasma engines so far is that they tend to use Inert gases like Xenon or Argon .. Which are available only with limited supply.

Crickerman November 2, 2012 at 9:49 AM

Wish the government would allow the testing of nuclear pulse propulsion..the Orion project had so much promise and that was over 50 years ago.. they finally decommissioned the fossil of the space shuttle, hopefully we can finally move forward in space travel and propulsion systems

delphinus100 November 3, 2012 at 4:31 AM

The government signed away that option in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. No testing in the atmosphere, underwater or in outer space. No exceptions in there for propulsive purposes. Unfortunate, but the way it is.

Besides, given that some of the public got tied in knots over RTGs (remember Cassini?), a system that requires actual detonations, even if only in deep space, are a political non-starter.

And, there’s nothing wrong with chemical propulsion, properly done. Nuclear electric and most (not all) solid-core nuclear thermal systems don’t provide enough thrust to get from Earth surface to LEO and beyond, where efficient, but low-thrust rockets are more viable.

Rick Holcomb November 2, 2012 at 2:32 PM

This is the future of space travel, Maybe not this particular vision but definitely *not* chemical propulsion. Nuclear fusion seems to be always beyond our grasp but a small nuclear fission plant (google the navy’s NR-1) could produce enough energy to make nuclear-electric or nuclear thermal propulsion viable today.

Torbjörn Larsson November 2, 2012 at 7:15 PM

Well, they have certainly identified the market. Chemicals will always be with us, at least as long as nuclears won’t be allowed in the atmosphere. But electricals lower the prize on interplanetary robotic missions.

They do so at the cost of lengthening the travel time. And since science return so much, dragging out the learning cycle is really costly. These things are likely (mostly) crutches, where chemicals would do the job better.

We would need a life cycle analysis. I’m sure it has been done, but I don’t know what it says. Probably “if only Saturn V was still in the business”. And yes, it isn’t relevant today. But under the discussed commercial regime, perhaps. SpaceX has flagged for a return to heavy chemicals, heavy enough for (relatively) fast interplanetary turnaround.

Then we “only” need governments that understands that science “is” (leads to) big business.

Jeffrey Scott Boerst November 2, 2012 at 7:19 PM

As of 12:18PM PST on Nov 2nd, they have $69,007! Goal reached!

rob krol November 2, 2012 at 8:03 PM

that is good but still much to slow 20km/s that is not enough we need minimum 100km/s to fly to mars in 2 week to 5 week and jupiter in half year to interstelar journey we need minimum 20000km/s in this speed flight to alfa centauri be in just 50years long so two three generation ships can fly to distance to 30-45ly

Ken Lord November 2, 2012 at 8:46 PM

A Pulse drive … Metered … Internally.

Oh Star Trek, is there nothing you can’t do? (IMPulse drive)

Gerald R Everett November 3, 2012 at 2:18 AM

I really like this. Given 8 Billion dollars and 15 years of development we just might have a
propulsion system that can take us to mars fast enough for us not to rot. If I had a dollar I would have pleged it.

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