Aerojet Rocketdyne Tests Out its New Advanced Ion Engine System

When it comes to the next generation of space exploration, a number of key technologies are being investigated. In addition to spacecraft and launchers that will be able to send astronauts farther into the Solar System, NASA and other space agencies are also looking into new means of propulsion. Compared to conventional rockets, the goal is to create systems that offer reliable thrust while ensuring fuel-efficiency.
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The X3 Ion Engine Test Break Thrust Records

When it comes to the future of space exploration, a number of new technologies are being investigated. Foremost among these are new forms of propulsion that will be able to balance fuel-efficiency with power. Not only would engines that are capable of achieving a great deal of thrust using less fuel be cost-effective, they will be able to ferry astronauts to destinations like Mars and beyond in less time.

This is where engines like the X3 Hall-effect thruster comes into play. This thruster, which is being developed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in conjunction with the US Air Force and the University of Michigan, is a scaled-up model of the kinds of thrusters used by the Dawn spacecraft. During a recent test, this thruster shattered the previous record for a Hall-effect thruster, achieving higher power and superior thrust.

Hall-effect thrusters have garnered favor with mission planners in recent years because of their extreme efficiency. They function by turning small amounts of propellant (usually inert gases like xenon) into charged plasma with electrical fields, which is then accelerated very quickly using a magnetic field. Compared to chemical rockets, they can achieve top speeds using a tiny fraction of their fuel.

Artist’s concept of Dawn mission using its blue ion engine to reach Ceres in the distance. Credit: NASA/JPL

However, a major challenge so far has been building a Hall-effect thruster that is capable of achieving high levels of thrust as well. While fuel efficient, conventional ion engines typically produce only a fraction of the thrust produced by rockets that rely on solid-chemical propellants. Hence why NASA has been developing the scaled-up model X3 thruster in conjunction with its partners.

The development of the thruster has been overseen by Alec Gallimore, a professor of aerospace engineering and the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan. As he indicated in a recent Michigan News press statement:

“Mars missions are just on the horizon, and we already know that Hall thrusters work well in space. They can be optimized either for carrying equipment with minimal energy and propellant over the course of a year or so, or for speed—carrying the crew to Mars much more quickly.”

In recent tests, the X3 shattered the previous thrust record set by a Hall thruster, achieving 5.4 newtons of force compared with the old record of 3.3 newtons. The X3 also more than doubled the operating current (250 amperes vs. 112 amperes) and ran at a slightly higher power than the previous record-holder (102 kilowatts vs. 98 kilowatts). This was encouraging news, since it means that the engine can offer faster acceleration, which means shorter travel times.

Scott Hall makes some final adjustments on the thruster before the test begins. Credit: NASA

The test was carried about by Scott Hall and Hani Kamhawi at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Whereas Hall is a doctoral student in aerospace engineering at U-M, Kamhawi is NASA Glenn research scientist who has been heavily involved in the development of the X3. In addition, Kamhawi is also Hall’s NASA mentor, as part of the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship (NSTRF).

This test was the culmination of more than five years of research which sought to improve upon current Hall-effect designs. To conduct the test, the team relied on NASA Glenn’s vacuum chamber, which is currently the only chamber in the US that can handle the X3 thruster. This is due to the sheer amount of exhaust the thruster produces, which can result in ionized xenon drifting back into the plasma plume, thus skewing the test results.

NASA Glenn’s setup is the only one with a vacuum pump powerful enough to create the conditions necessary to keep the exhaust clean. Hall and Kamhawi also had to build a custom thrust stand to support the X3’s 227 kg (500 pound) frame and withstand the force it generates, since existing stands were not up to the task. After securing a test window, the team spent four weeks prepping the stand, the thruster, and setting up all the necessary connections.

All the while, NASA researchers, engineers and technicians were on hand to provide support. After 20 hours of pumping to achieve a space-like vacuum inside the chamber, Hall and Kamhawi conducted a series of tests where the engine would be fired for 12-hours straight. Over the course of 25 days, the team brought the X3 up to its record-breaking power, current and thrust levels.

A side shot of the X3 firing at 50 kilowatts. Credit: NASA

Looking ahead, the team plans to conduct more tests in Gallimore’s lab at U-M using an upgraded vacuum chamber. These upgrades will are schedules to be completed by January of 2018, and will enable the team to conduct future tests in-house. This upgrade was made possible thanks to a $1 million USD grant, contributed in part by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, with additional support provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and U-M.

The X3’s power supplies are also being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the Sacramento-based rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer that is also the lead on the propulsion system grant from NASA. By Spring of 2018, the engine is expected to be integrated with these power systems; at which point, a series of 100-hour tests that will once again be conducted at the Glenn Research Center.

The X3 is one of three prototypes that NASA is investigating for future crewed missions to Mars, all of which are intended to reduce travel times and reduce the amount of fuel needed. Beyond making such missions more cost-effective, the reduced transit times are also intended to reduce the amount of radiation astronauts will be exposed to as they travel between Earth and Mars.

The project is funded through NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnership (Next-STEP), which supports not just propulsion systems but also habitat systems and in-space manufacturing.

Further Reading: Michigan News

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

Was Physics Really Violated By EM Drive In “Leaked” NASA Paper?

Ever since NASA announced that they had created a prototype of the controversial Radio Frequency Resonant Cavity Thruster (aka. the EM Drive), any and all reported results have been the subject of controversy. And with most of the announcements taking the form of “leaks” and rumors, all reported developments have been naturally treated with skepticism.

And yet, the reports keep coming. The latest alleged results come from the Eagleworks Laboratories at the Johnson Space Center, where a “leaked” report revealed that the controversial drive is capable of generating thrust in a vacuum. Much like the critical peer-review process, whether or not the engine can pass muster in space has been a lingering issue for some time.

Given the advantages of the EM Drive, it is understandable that people want to see it work. Theoretically, these include the ability to generate enough thrust to fly to the Moon in just four hours, to Mars in 70 days, and to Pluto in 18 months, and the ability to do it all without the need for propellant. Unfortunately, the drive system is based on principles that violate the Conservation of Momentum law.

Aerial Photography of Johnson Space Center site and facilities. Credit: NASA/James Blair
Aerial photograph of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where the Eagleworks Laboratory is located. Credit: NASA/James Blair

This law states that within a system, the amount of momentum remains constant and is neither created nor destroyed, but only changes through the action of forces. Since the EM Drive involves electromagnetic microwave cavities converting electrical energy directly into thrust, it has no reaction mass. It is therefore “impossible”, as far as conventional physics go.

The report, titled “Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio Frequency Cavity in Vacuum“, was apparently leaked in early November. It’s lead author is predictably Harold White, the Advanced Propulsion Team Lead for the NASA Engineering Directorate and the Principal Investigator for NASA’s Eagleworks lab.

As he and his colleagues (allegedly) report in the paper, they completed an impulsive thrust test on a “tapered RF test article”. This consisted of a forward and reverse thrust phase, a low thrust pendulum, and three thrust tests at power levels of 40, 60 and 80 watts. As they stated in the report:

“It is shown here that a dielectrically loaded tapered RF test article excited in the TM212 mode at 1,937 MHz is capable of consistently generating force at a thrust level of 1.2 ± 0.1 mN/kW with the force directed to the narrow end under vacuum conditions.”

Ionic propulsion is currently the slowest, but fmost fuel-efficient, form of space travel. Credit: NASA/JPL
Ionic propulsion is currently the slowest, but most fuel-efficient, form of space travel. Credit: NASA/JPL

To be clear, this level of thrust to power – 1.2. millinewtons per kilowatt – is quite insignificant. In fact, the paper goes on to place these results in context, comparing them to ion thrusters and laser sail proposals:

The current state of the art thrust to power for a Hall thruster is on the order of 60 mN/kW. This is an order of magnitude higher than the test article evaluated during the course of this vacuum campaign… The 1.2 mN/kW performance parameter is two orders of magnitude higher than other forms of ‘zero propellant’ propulsion such as light sails, laser propulsion and photon rockets having thrust to power levels in the 3.33-6.67 [micronewton]/kW (or 0.0033 – 0.0067 mN/kW) range.”

Currently, ion engines are considered the most fuel-efficient form of propulsion. However, they are notoriously slow compared to conventional, solid-propellant thrusters. To offer some perspective, NASA’s Dawn mission relied on a xenon-ion engine that had a thrust to power generation of 90 millinewtons per kilowatt. Using this technology, it took the probe almost four years to travel from Earth to the asteroid Vesta.

The concept of direct-energy (aka. laser sails), by contrast, requires very little thrust since it involves wafer-sized craft – tiny probes which weight about a gram and carry all their instruments they need in the form of chips. This concept is currently being explored for the sake of making the journey to neighboring planets and star systems within our own lifetimes.

Two good examples are the NASA-funded DEEP-IN interstellar concept that is being developed at UCSB, which attempts to use lasers to power a craft up to 0.25 the speed of light. Meanwhile, Project Starshot (part of Breakthrough Initiatives) is developing a craft which they claim will reach speeds of 20% the speed of light, and thus be able to make the trip to Alpha Centauri in 20 years.

Compared to these proposals, the EM Drive can still boast the fact that it does not require any propellant or an external power source. But based on these test results, the amount of power that would be needed to generate a significant amount of thrust would make it impractical. However, one should keep in mind that this low power test was designed to see if any thrust detected could be attributed to anomalies (none of which were detected).

The report also acknowledges that further testing will be necessary to rule out other possible causes, such as center of gravity (CG) shifts and thermal expansion. And if outside causes can again be ruled out, future tests will no doubt attempt to maximize performance to see just how much thrust the EM Drive is capable of generating.

But of course, this is all assuming that the “leaked” paper is genuine. Until NASA can confirm that these results are indeed real, the EM Drive will be stuck in controversy limbo. And while we’re waiting, check out this descriptive video by astronomer Scott Manley from the Armagh Observatory:

Further Reading: Science Alert

Jupiter’s Moon Ganymede

Ganymede

In 1610, Galileo Galilei looked up at the night sky through a telescope of his own design. Spotting Jupiter, he noted the presence of several “luminous objects” surrounding it, which he initially took for stars. In time, he would notice that these “stars” were orbiting the planet, and realized that they were in fact Jupiter’s moons – which would come to be named Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Of these, Ganymede is the largest, and boasts many fascinating characteristics. In addition to being the largest moon in the Solar System, it is also larger than even the planet Mercury. It is the only satellite in the Solar System known to possess a magnetosphere, has a thin oxygen atmosphere, and (much like its fellow-moons, Europa and Callisto) is believed to have an interior ocean.

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A Mission to a Metal World: The Psyche Mission

In their drive to set exploration goals for the future, NASA’s Discovery Program put out the call for proposals for their thirteenth Discovery mission in February 2014. After reviewing the 27 initial proposals, a panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers recently selected five semifinalists for additional research and development, one or two of which will be launching by the 2020s.

With an eye to Venus, near-Earth objects and asteroids, these missions are looking beyond Mars to address other questions about the history and formation of our Solar System. Among them is the proposed Psyche mission, a robotic spacecraft that will explore the metallic asteroid of the same name – 16 Psyche – in the hopes of shedding some light on the mysteries of planet formation.

Discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis on March 17th, 1852 – and named after a Greek mythological figure – Psyche is one the ten most-massive asteroids in the Asteroid Belt. It is also the most massive M-type asteroid, a special class pertaining to asteroids composed primarily of nickel and iron.

For some time, scientists have speculated that this metallic asteroid is in fact the survivor of a protoplanet. In this scenario, a violent collision with a planetesimal stripped off Psyche’s outer, rocky layers, leaving behind only the dense, metallic interior. This theory is supported by estimates of Psyche’s bulk density, spectra, and radar surface properties; all of which show it to be an object unlike any others in the Belt.

Promotional artwork for the proposed Psyche mission. Credit: Peter Rubin/JPL-CALTECH.
Promotional artwork for the proposed Psyche mission. Credit: Peter Rubin/JPL-CALTECH.

In addition, this composition of 16 Psyche is strikingly similar to that of Earth’s metal core. Given that astronomers think that larger planets like Venus, Earth and Mars formed from the collision and merger of smaller worlds, Psyche could be the remains of a protoplanet that did not get to create a larger body.

Had such a planetesimal been struck by a large enough object, it would have been able to lose its lower-mass exterior while keeping its core intact. Thus, studying this 250 km (155 mile) wide body, offers a unique opportunity to learn more about the interiors of planets and large moons, whose cores are hidden beneath many miles of rock.

Dr. Linda Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration is the Principle Investigator of this mission. As she and her team stated in their mission proposal paper, which was originally submitted as part of the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (2014):

“This mission would be a journey back in time to one of the earliest periods of planetary accretion, when the first bodies were not only differentiating, but were being pulverized, shredded, and accreted by collisions. It is also an exploration, by proxy, of the interiors of terrestrial planets and satellites today: we cannot visit a metallic core any other way.

“For all of these reasons, coupled with the relative accessibility to low- cost rendezvous and orbit, Psyche is a superb target for a Discovery-class mission that would characterize its geology, shape, elemental composition, magnetic field , and mass distribution.”

The huge metal asteroid Psyche may have a strong remnant magnetic field. Credit: Damir Gamulin/Ben Weiss
The huge metal asteroid Psyche may have a strong remnant magnetic field. Credit: Damir Gamulin/Ben Weiss

A robotic mission to Pysche would also help astronomers learn more about metal worlds, a type of solar system object that scientists know very little about. But perhaps the greatest reason to study 16 Psyche is the fact that it is unique. So far, this body is the only metallic core-like body that has been discovered in the Solar System.

The proposed spacecraft would orbit Psyche for six months, studying its topography, surface features, gravity, magnetism, and other characteristics. The mission would also be cost-effective and quick to launch, since it is largely based on technology that went into the making of NASA’s Dawn probe. Currently in orbit around Ceres, the Dawn mission has demonstrated the effectiveness of many new technologies, not the least of which was the xenon ion thruster.

The Psyche orbiter mission was selected as one of the Discovery Program’s five semifinalists on September 30th, 2015. Each proposal has received $3 million for year-long studies to lay out detailed mission plans and reduce risks. One or two finalist will be selected to receive the program’s budget of $450 million (minus the cost of a launch vehicle and mission operations) and will launch in 2020 at the earliest.