It was believed that running more fuel through a Hall thruster would affect its efficiency, but new experiments suggest they could power a manned mission to Mars – Zoo House News

It was believed that running more fuel through a Hall thruster would affect its efficiency, but new experiments suggest they could power a manned mission to Mars – Zoo House News

  • Science
  • January 26, 2023
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It was thought that Hall thrusters, an efficient type of electric propulsion widely used in orbit, needed to be large to produce a lot of thrust. Now, a new study from the University of Michigan suggests that smaller Hall thrusters can generate much more thrust – potentially making them candidates for interplanetary missions.

“People used to think that you could only force a certain amount of current through a section of an engine, which in turn directly translates to how much power or thrust you can generate per unit area,” said Benjamin Jorns, associate professor of aerospace engineering at UM led the new Hall engine study being presented today at the AIAA SciTech Forum in National Harbor, Maryland.

His team challenged that limit by taking a 9-kilowatt Hall thruster to 45 kilowatts while maintaining about 80% of its rated efficiency. This increased the force generated per unit area by almost a factor of 10.

Whether we call it plasma propulsion or ion propulsion, electric propulsion is our best bet for interplanetary travel—but science is at a crossroads. While Hall thrusters are proven technology, an alternative concept known as a magnetoplasmic dynamic thruster promises to pack much more power into smaller thrusters. However, they are still unproven in many ways, including lifespan.

It was believed that Hall thrusters could not compete due to the way they worked. The propellant, typically an inert gas such as xenon, moves through a cylindrical duct where it is accelerated by a strong electric field. It generates thrust in the forward direction as it exits to the rear. But before the propellant can be accelerated, it must lose some electrons to give it a positive charge.

Electrons, accelerated by a magnetic field to travel in a ring around this channel – called a “buzz saw” by Jorns – knock electrons off the propellant atoms and turn them into positively charged ions. However, calculations suggested that if a Hall thruster tried to force more fuel through the thruster, the electrons whizzing in a ring would be thrown out of the formation and this “buzz saw” function would break down.

“It’s like trying to bite off more than you can chew,” Jorns said. “The circular saw can’t work its way through that much material.”

In addition, the motor would become extremely hot. Jorns’ team put those beliefs to the test.

“We called our powerplant H9 MUSCLE because we essentially took the H9 powerplant and made it a muscle car by cranking it up to 11 – really up to a hundred if we’re sticking to precise scaling,” said Leanne Su, a graduate student in aerospace engineering who will present the study.

They addressed the heat problem by cooling it with water, which allowed them to see how big a problem the circular saw failure would be. As it turned out, it wasn’t much trouble. Running on xenon, the conventional fuel, the H9 MUSCLE ran at up to 37.5 kilowatts, with an overall efficiency of around 49%, not far from the 62% efficiency at its 9 kilowatt rating.

Using krypton, a lighter gas, they ran their power supply at 45 kilowatts. With an overall efficiency of 51%, they achieved their maximum thrust of around 1.8 Newtons, which corresponds to the much larger X3 Hall engine in the 100-kilowatt class.

“That’s a pretty crazy result because krypton usually performs much worse than xenon on Hall thrusters. So it’s very cool and an interesting way forward to see that we can actually improve the performance of krypton compared to xenon by increasing the current density of the thruster. ‘ said Su.

Nested Hall engines like the X3 – also developed in part by UM – were researched for interplanetary cargo transport, but they are much larger and heavier, making them difficult to transport people. Now, ordinary Hall engines are back on the table for crewed voyages.

Jorns says the cooling problem would require a space-grade solution if Hall engines are to operate at these high power levels. Still, he’s optimistic that individual engines could operate at 100 to 200 kilowatts, arranged in arrays delivering a megawatt’s worth of thrust. This could allow manned missions to reach Mars even on the other side of the sun, covering a distance of 250 million miles.

The team hopes to track the cooling issue, as well as challenges in developing Hall thrusters and magnetoplasmic dynamic thrusters on Earth, where few facilities can test thrusters at the Mars mission level. The amount of propellant escaping from the engine comes too quickly for the vacuum pumps to be able to keep the conditions in the test chamber similar to a room.

The research was supported in part by the Joint Advanced Propulsion Institute.

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