Heading for blast off

June 5, 2012
Heading for blast off
The ANU plasma thruster will help satellites travel for longer and further into deep space. Image courtesy of NASA.

(Phys.org) -- Construction of a pioneering plasma thruster – an engine that could be used to power satellites to Mars – and a space simulation facility that will aid the development of the first Australian satellites is underway at Mt Stromlo Observatory.

The project is being driven by the Space Plasma Power and Propulsion (SP3) Laboratory of the Research School of Physics and Engineering in close collaboration with the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at The Australian National University.

The plasma thruster and the space simulation facility are expected to be ready by mid-next year. The plasma thruster could be propelling a test satellite into space within the next two years.

The initial missions will investigate the possibility of using the plasma thruster to send out-of-date satellites into ‘graveyard’ orbits. The long-term aim is to scale the prototypes up to allow flights to Mars. This would be the first time a satellite with a plasma engine has been tested.

Professor Rod Boswell, of the Space Plasma Power and Propulsion Laboratory, said that the plasma thruster project was significant for the Australian space community because it allowed for the development of completely Australian satellites.

Professor Boswell added that there was already a lot of interest and requests from the Australian space community – and beyond – to use the space simulation facility once it was up and running.

“A number of Australian universities teach aerospace and mechantronics. Up until now, there’s been nowhere for them to test their spacecrafts – they have to go overseas. So this will really be providing a major service, not only in Australia, but also in Southeast Asia.”

The project is a collaboration between European firm EADS-Astrium, the world’s largest aerospace and aeronautic company, the SP3 Laboratory at ANU and Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, UK. It is being funded to the tune of $3.1million by the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education.

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not rated yet Jun 05, 2012
Hmm, I wonder if a spaceship could slowly "spiral" up to lunar orbit using this propulsion over a period of months (short enough to retain a load of LOX), and then get fuelled with H2, as the crew enters.
This way you only need ordinary propellants for a brief manouver to get from the moon to Earth, and then -having already reached 11.2 km/s- make a brief engine burst near Earth, eventually reaching a considerable velocity despite only using conventional fuels for a delta-v of 1-2 km/s. Good for Mars journeys.
The main problem I see is a power source for the plasma drive.
not rated yet Jun 05, 2012
Looking at a couple related articles, one stated they were using lithium ions for fuel. With all the use of lithium for battery technology and it being not as abundant as other elements, could shooting quantities of it into space be wise?
not rated yet Jun 05, 2012
Birger: The high specific impulse/low thrust of a plasma thruster makes it impossible to leave even the gravity at the lunar surface using today's technology. If we did have such technology we would most certainly be using that to get around up there right now, that's for certain. The Europeans did send an ion engine powered probe to the moon some time ago as a proof of concept. The journey took three years and then some. Today's ion thrusters are significantly better, but the kind of thrust that you are envisioning cannot yet be achieved.
not rated yet Jun 06, 2012
... could shooting quantities of it into space be wise?

The world produces 34000 tonnes per year [wikipedia].

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