Plasma thrusters fall into the category of electric thrusters, and use electric or magnetic fields to accelerate the propellant. They are used as orbital boosters or can be used as the main propelling engine in deep space maneuvers. Unlike a conventional rocket engine operating with chemical based solid or liquid fuels, these systems use plasma as their fuel.
The energetic ions and electrons within the plasma can be accelerated together, or an ion beam can be extracted and accelerated to a high velocity in order to generate the necessary thrust in the opposite direction. A variety of designs to generate and accelerate the plasma can be grouped broadly into Hall thruster, RF (Helicon) thruster and microwave (ECR) thruster.
This is the most advanced and efficient type of electric thruster and is developed in a coaxial configuration where orthogonal electric and magnetic fields (ExB) confine high energy electrons which ionize propellant gases, such as xenon. The resulting ions are accelerated by an electric field and fly out producing thrust in the opposite direction.
Find out more about Hall Thrusters here.
These thrusters utilize radio frequency (13.56 MHz) antenna to generate high density plasma of the propellant gas in a tube closed at one end. This antenna is helical in shape, and the plasma is accelerated through a ‘magnetic nozzle’ of rapidly expanding magnetic field to produce the thrust.
Find out more about Helicon Thruster here.
Microwave plasma thrusters utilize high density and high temperature plasma produced by 2.45 GHz microwave. Applying a magnetic field to the microwave plasma can improve the thruster performance, whereby the rotation of the electrons in the magnetic field resonates with the applied microwave radiation. This causes greater energy absorption so the electron temperature rises up and results in a high degree of ionization inside plasma. The plasma then expands into a magnetic nozzle to be accelerated out of the chamber and generate thrust.
Find out more about ECR Thruster here.
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