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Robust Plasma Propulsion Ignition System Developed for Cubesats


Purdue has created part of a new cubesat thruster which electromagnetically accelerates plasma to produce thrust. They have successfully tested the ignition system for more than 1.5 million pulses. This is a giant leap for extending the lifetime of electric propulsion systems for CubeSats.

With an on-board propulsion system, CubeSats are able to achieve orbital maneuvers, formation flying, constellation maintenance and precise attitude control. Chemical propulsion as one candidate for propelling smaller spacecraft into outer space has the advantage of large thrust but presents severe concerns due to its requirement for large propellant mass, high temperature and pressure, and a threat to the main payloads posed by the reactive propellant materials. Electric propulsion, in comparison, has very high exhaust velocity and fuel efficiency.

Depending on the mechanism of acceleration, traditional electric propulsion systems are generally divided into three categories:
1. electrothermal
2. electrostatic and
3. electromagnetic.

While R&D of the electric propulsion for CubeSats currently involves multiple technologies including pulsed plasma thruster (PPT), miniature Xenon ion thruster, electrospray, and vacuum arc thruster (VAT). these propulsion systems are still at their infancy and mostly remain less than 7 in the Technology Readiness Level scale used by NASA. The advanced CubeSat propulsion systems have not been validated in space.

A robust and compact ignitor that can reliably trigger the discharge in the electrical propulsion system throughout the entire operational lifetime is the goal of the Purdue University work.