New Way to Make Plasma Propulsion Lighter and More Efficient

Plasma propulsion is a subject of keen interest to astronomers and space agencies. As a highly-advanced technology that offers considerable fuel-efficiency over conventional chemical rockets, it is currently being used in everything from spacecraft and satellites to exploratory missions. And looking to the future, flowing plasma is also being investigated for more advanced propulsion concepts, as well as magnetic-confined fusion.

However, a common problem with plasma propulsion is the fact that it relies on what is known as a “neutralizer”. This instrument, which allows spacecraft to remain charge-neutral, is an additional drain on power. Luckily, a team of researchers from the University of York and École Polytechnique are investigating a plasma thruster design that would do away with a neutralizer altogether.

A study detailing their research findings – titled “Transient propagation dynamics of flowing plasmas accelerated by radio-frequency electric fields” – was released earlier this month in Physics of Plasmas – a journal published by the American Institute of Physics. Led by Dr. James Dendrick, a physicist from the York Plasma Institute at the University of York, they present a concept for a self-regulating plasma thruster.

A 6 kW Hall thruster in operation at NASA;s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL

Basically, plasma propulsion systems rely on electric power to ionize propellant gas and transform it into plasma (i.e. negatively charged electrons and positively-charged ions). These ions and electrons are then accelerated by engine nozzles to generate thrust and propel a spacecraft. Examples include the Gridded-ion and Hall-effect thruster, both of which are established propulsion technologies.

The Gridden-ion thruster was first tested in the 1960s and 70s as part of the Space Electric Rocket Test (SERT) program. Since then, it has been used by NASA’s Dawn mission, which is currently exploring Ceres in the Main Asteroid Belt. And in the future, the ESA and JAXA plan to use Gridded-iron thrusters to propel their BepiColombo mission to Mercury.

Similarly, Hall-effect thrusters have been investigated since the 1960s by both NASA and the Soviet space programs. They were first used as part of the ESA’s Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology-1 (SMART-1) mission. This mission, which launched in 2003 and crashed into the lunar surface three years later, was the first ESA mission to go to the Moon.

As noted, spacecraft that use these thrusters all require a neutralizer to ensure that they remain “charge-neutral”. This is necessary since conventional plasma thrusters generate more positively-charged particles than they do negatively-charged ones. As such, neutralizers inject electrons (which carry a negative charge) in order to maintain the balance between positive and negative ions.

An artist's illustration of NASA's Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
An artist’s illustration of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft with its ion propulsion system approaching Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

As you might suspect, these electrons are generated by the spacecraft’s electrical power systems, which means that the neutralizer is an additional drain on power. The addition of this component also means that the propulsion system itself will have to be larger and heavier. To address this, the York/École Polytechnique team proposed a design for a plasma thruster that can remain charge neutral on its own.

Known as the Neptune engine, this concept was first demonstrated in 2014 by Dmytro Rafalskyi and Ane Aanesland, two researchers from the École Polytechnique’s Laboratory of Plasma Physics (LPP) and co-authors on the recent paper. As they demonstrated, the concept builds upon the technology used to create gridded-ion thrusters, but manages to generate exhaust that contains comparable amounts of positively and negatively charged ions.

As they explain in the course of their study:

“Its design is based on the principle of plasma acceleration, whereby the coincident extraction of ions and electrons is achieved by applying an oscillating electrical field to the gridded acceleration optics. In traditional gridded-ion thrusters, ions are accelerated using a designated voltage source to apply a direct-current (dc) electric field between the extraction grids. In this work, a dc self-bias voltage is formed when radio-frequency (rf) power is coupled to the extraction grids due to the difference in the area of the powered and grounded surfaces in contact with the plasma.”
The hall-effect thruster used by the SMART-1 mission, which relied on xenon as its reaction mass. Copyright: ESA

In short, the thruster creates exhaust that is effectively charge-neutral through the application of radio waves. This has the same effect of adding an electrical field to the thrust, and effectively removes the need for a neutralizer. As their study found, the Neptune thruster is also capable of generating thrust that is comparable to a conventional ion thruster.

To advance the technology even further, they teamed up with James Dedrick and Andrew Gibson from the York Plasma Institute to study how the thruster would work under different conditions. With Dedrick and Gibson on board, they began to study how the plasma beam might interact with space and whether this would affect its balanced charge.

What they found was that the engine’s exhaust beam played a large role in keeping the beam neutral, where the propagation of electrons after they are introduced at the extraction grids acts to compensate for space-charge in the plasma beam. As they state in their study:

“[P]hase-resolved optical emission spectroscopy has been applied in combination with electrical measurements (ion and electron energy distribution functions, ion and electron currents, and beam potential) to study the transient propagation of energetic electrons in a flowing plasma generated by an rf self-bias driven plasma thruster. The results suggest that the propagation of electrons during the interval of sheath collapse at the extraction grids acts to compensate space-charge in the plasma beam.”

Naturally, they also emphasize that further testing will be needed before a Neptune thruster can ever be used. But the results are encouraging, since they offer up the possibility of ion thrusters that are lighter and smaller, which would allow for spacecraft that are even more compact and energy-efficient. For space agencies looking to explore the Solar System (and beyond) on a budget, such technology is nothing if not desirable!

Further Reading: Physics of Plasmas, AIP

Mercury MESSENGER Mission Concludes with a Smashing Finale!

The planet Mercury has a brand new 52-foot-wide crater. At 3:26 p.m.  EDT this afternoon, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft bit the Mercurial dust, crashing into the planet’s surface at over 8,700 mph just north of the Shakespeare Basin. Because the impact happened out of sight and communication with the Earth, the MESSENGER team had to wait about 30 minutes after the predicted impact to announce the mission’s end. 

NASA estimates that the MESSENGER spacecraft would crash into Mercury this afternoon at 3:26 p.m. EDT near the 30-mile-wide crater Janacek on the opposite side of the planet from Earth. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
NASA predicted that the MESSENGER spacecraft would crash into Mercury this afternoon at 3:26 p.m. EDT near the 30-mile-wide crater Janacek  and the large Shakespeare Basin on the opposite side of the planet from Earth. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Even as MESSENGER faced its demise, it continued to take pictures and gather data right up until impact. The first-ever space probe to orbit the Solar System’s innermost planet, MESSENGER has completed 4,103 orbits as of this morning. Not only has it imaged the planet in great detail, but using it seven science instruments, scientists have gathered data on the composition and structure of Mercury’s crust, its geologic history, the nature of its magnetic field and rarefied sodium-calcium atmosphere, and the makeup of its iron core and icy materials near its poles.

Color-coded view of Carnegie Rupes (ridge) with low elevations in blue and high in red. The ridge formed as the Mercury's interior cooled, resulting in the overall shrinking of the planet. Parts of the landscape lapped over other parts as the planet shrunk. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Color-coded view of Carnegie Rupes at left with low elevations in blue and high in red. The ridge formed as Mercury’s interior cooled, resulting in the overall shrinking of the planet. Parts of the landscape lapped over other parts as the planet shrunk. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Images show those ubiquitous craters but also features that set its moonlike landscape apart from the Moon including volcanic plains, tectonic landforms that indicate the planet shrank as its interior cooled and mysterious mouse-like nibbles called “hollows”, where surface material may be vaporizing in sunlight leaving behind a network of holes. To learn more about the mission’s “greatest hits”, check out its Top Ten discoveries or pay a visit to the Gallery.

The rounded, depressions, called "hollows", are a fascinating discovery of MESSENGER's orbital mission and may have been formed by vaporization of something in the material when exposed by the Raditladi impact. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
The rounded depressions, called “hollows”, are a fascinating discovery of MESSENGER’s orbital mission and may have been formed by vaporization of materials in the surface when exposed by the Raditladi impact. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

MESSENGER mission controllers conducted the last of six planned maneuvers on April 24 to raise the spacecraft’s minimum altitude sufficiently to extend orbital operations and further delay the probe’s inevitable impact onto Mercury’s surface, but it’s now out of propellant. Without the ability to counteract the Sun’s gravity, which is slowly pulling the craft closer to Mercury’s surface, the team prepared for the inevitable.

False color images of Mercury taken with MESSENGER's Mercury Atmosphere and Surface Composition Spectrometer (MASCS) in everything from infrared to ultraviolet light reveal colorful differences in terrain and surface mineralogy. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
False color images of Mercury taken with MESSENGER’s Mercury Atmosphere and Surface Composition Spectrometer (MASCS) in everything from infrared to ultraviolet light reveal colorful differences in terrain and surface mineralogy. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

The spacecraft actually ran out of propellant a while back, but controllers realized they could re-purpose a stock of helium, originally carried to pressurize the fuel, for a few final blasts to keep it alive and doing science right up to the last minute. During its final hours today, MESSENGER will be shooting and sending back as many new pictures as possible the same way you’d squeeze in one last shot of the Grand Canyon before departing for home. It’s also holding hundreds of older photos in its memory chip and will send as many of those as it can before the final deadline.

Farewell MESSENGER! Artist view of the spacecraft orbiting the innermost planet Mercury. Credit: NASA
Farewell MESSENGER! Artist view of the spacecraft in orbit about Mercury. Credit: NASA

“Operating a spacecraft in orbit about Mercury, where the probe is exposed to punishing heat from the Sun and the planet’s dayside surface as well as the harsh radiation environment of the inner heliosphere (Sun’s sphere of influence), would be challenge enough,” said Principal Investigator Sean Solomon, MESSENGER principal investigator. “But MESSENGER’s mission design, navigation, engineering, and spacecraft operations teams have fought off the relentless action of solar gravity, made the most of every usable gram of propellant, and devised novel ways to modify the spacecraft trajectory never before accomplished in deep space.”

Face northwest starting about 45 minutes after sunset to look for Mercury tonight. It will lie about two fists below Venus and only 1.5 from the Pleiades star cluster. Source: Stellarium
Face northwest starting about 45 minutes after sunset to find Mercury tonight. It’s located about two fists to the lower right of Venus and just 1.5° below the Pleiades star cluster. Use binoculars to see the star cluster more easily. Source: Stellarium

Ground-based telescopes won’t be able to spy MESSENGER’s impact crater because of its small size, but the BepiColombo Mercury probe, due to launch in 2017 and arrive in orbit at Mercury in 2024, should be able to get a glimpse. Speaking of spying, you can see the planet Mercury tonight (and for the next week or two), when it will be easily visible low in the northwestern sky starting about 45 minutes after sundown. The planet coincidentally makes its closest approach to the Pleiades star cluster tonight and tomorrow.

Use the occasion to wish MESSENGER a fond farewell.

Mercury Spacecraft Moves To Testing Ahead Of 2016 Launch To Sun’s Closest Planet

After facing down a couple of delays due to technical difficulties, Europe’s and Japan’s first Mercury orbiter is entering some of the final stages ahead of its 2016 launch. Part of the BepiColombo orbiter moved into a European testing facility this past week that will shake, bake and otherwise test the hardware to make sure it’s ready for its extreme mission.

Because Mercury is so close to the Sun, BepiColombo is going to have a particularly harsh operating environment. Temperatures there will soar as high as 350 degrees Celsius (662 degrees Fahrenheit), requiring officials to change the chamber to simulate these higher temperatures. Time will tell if the spacecraft is ready for the test.

BepiColombo is also special because it includes not one orbiting spacecraft, but two. Flying in different orbits, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will try to learn more about this mysterious planet. NASA’s MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) spacecraft has spent the past few  years orbiting Mercury, but before then, we had very little information on the planet. (And before MESSENGER, only brief flybys from NASA’s Mariner 10 in the 1970s turned up spacecraft-based information on Mercury.)

MESSENGER has turned up quite a few surprises. It’s showed us more about the nature of Mercury’s tenuous atmosphere and it’s discovered probable water ice (!) in permanently shadowed areas, among other things. The European Space Agency and Japan hope to push our understanding of the Sun’s closest planet when BepiColombo gets there in 2024.

On Oct. 30, 2014, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (part of the BepiColombo mission) was moved into the European Space Agency's space simulator for testing ahead of the expected 2016 launch. Credit: ESA–A. Le’Floch
On Oct. 30, 2014, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (part of the BepiColombo mission) was moved into the European Space Agency’s space simulator for testing ahead of the expected 2016 launch. Credit: ESA–A. Le’Floch

There are so many questions that Mercury presents us, and BepiColombo is trying to answer a few of those. For example, Mercury’s density is higher than the rest of the other terrestrial planets for reasons that are poorly understood. Scientists aren’t sure if its core is liquid or solid, or even it has active plate tectonics as Earth does. Its magnetic field is a mystery, given that Mars and Venus and the Moon don’t have any. And there are tons of questions too about its atmosphere, such as how it is produced and how the magnetic field and solar wind work together.

The two spacecraft will be carried together to Mercury’s orbit along with a component called the Mercury Transfer Model (MTM), which will push the spacecraft out there using solar-electric propulsion. Just before BepiColombo enters orbit, MTM will be jettisoned and the Mercury Polar Orbiter will ensure the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter receives the needed resources to survive until the two spacecraft move into their separate orbits, according to the European Space Agency.

As for why it takes so long to get out there, to save on fuel the mission will swing by Earth, Venus and Mercury to get to the right spot. Once the two spacecraft are ready to go, they’re expected to last a year in orbit — with a potential one-year extension.