Research Continues for Deep Space Travel Propulsion

Jan 10, 2007
Research Continues for Deep Space Travel Propulsion
A graduate student watches a Plasmoid Thruster Experiment on the campus of The University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Graduate students and faculty researchers at The University of Alabama in Huntsville are investigating propulsion concepts that could eventually revolutionize deep space travel.

The Plasmoid Thruster Experiment (PTX) is a stepping stone to a highly efficient propulsion concept which could ultimately change how we travel in space, according to Dr. Jason Cassibry, a researcher in UAH’s Propulsion Research Center.

“Larger, more powerful versions can produce fusion for both power and space propulsion, allowing human travel to the outer planets,” he said.

Few groups around the country are working on this emerging technology, according to Cassibry. UAH is among that small number of research institutions.

The experimental branch of the Propulsion Research Center’s pulsed plasma research group is focused on gathering experimental data from PTX, which was originally built at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. MSFC donated the equipment to UAH last year.

The purpose of the PTX is to investigate the fundamental plasma and acceleration properties of a small-scale, pulsed plasma thruster.

PTX works by ringing a single turn conical theta pinch coil at about 500 kHz, ionizing and accelerating a small quantity of gas. The magnetic field inside the coil creates a plasmoid, a plasma that has a closed magnetic field structure.

One of the biggest challenges in any electric propulsion concept is increasing the lifetime of the thruster, which must run continuously for several years for deep space missions. Most electric propulsion concepts use plasma, which is in contact with electrodes or acceleration grids, causing erosion of the components and limiting the lifetime of the thruster. The plasmoid thruster potentially has a much longer lifetime, because the plasma is formed inductively, which means that the plasma is not in contact with the thruster components.

UAH researchers ran system tests and calibrations in October, and today the equipment is at full capacity.

In the short term, PTX will continue to take data in support of the ongoing development of the numerical models. This will be accomplished by using a laser interferometer to measure the plasma density. Also, magnetic field measurements help to determine size of the plasmoid. Together, these diagnostics provide a lot of information without affecting the plasmoid itself, according to Cassibry.

In the long term, the PTX experiment will be expanded by varying the coil geometry, adding bias flux and changing the initial conditions to study the effect on the coupling efficiency between the primary coil current and the secondary current in the plasmoid in an effort to improve plasma acceleration and thrust.

“Our experimental pulsed plasma group is keeping a watchful eye on the field of plasma science,” Cassibry said. “We believe that we now have the means and the ability to support further scientific developments in this field.”

Source: University of Alabama Huntsville

Explore further: Detailed experiments reveal the operational parameters for a promising thermo-magnetic data-storage technology

Related Stories

The revolutionary ion engine that took spacecraft to Ceres

Mar 09, 2015

The NASA spacecraft Dawn has spent more than seven years travelling across the Solar System to intercept the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Now in orbit around Ceres, the probe has returned the first images and data from these dist ...

Study of atmospheric 'froth' may help GPS communications

Feb 27, 2015

When you don't know how to get to an unfamiliar place, you probably rely on a smart phone or other device with a Global Positioning System (GPS) module for guidance. You may not realize that, especially at ...

Exploring the universe with nuclear power

Feb 02, 2015

In the past four decades, NASA and other space agencies from around the world have accomplished some amazing feats. Together, they have sent manned missions to the Moon, explored Mars, mapped Venus and Mercury, ...

Will the real monster black hole please stand up?

Jan 08, 2015

(Phys.org)—A new high-energy X-ray image from NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has pinpointed the true monster of a galactic mashup. The image shows two colliding galaxies, collectively ...

Recommended for you

CERN researchers confirm existence of the Force

12 hours ago

Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider just recently started testing the accelerator for running at the higher energy of 13 TeV, and already they have found new insights into the fundamental structure ...

Soft, energy-efficient robotic wings

Mar 31, 2015

Dielectric elastomers are novel materials for making actuators or motors with soft and lightweight properties that can undergo large active deformations with high-energy conversion efficiencies. This has ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

holoman
1 / 5 (1) May 15, 2009
I really have a problem with propellant propulsion for interstellar travel, plus the added low particle velocity of plasma particles.

Antimatter propulsion would be the best and that is why I have a patent pending, not to be published at
my request.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.