Hello, and welcome back to Beyond NERVA. Today, we are looking at a very popular topic, but one that doesn’t necessarily require nuclear power: electric propulsion. However, it IS an area that nuclear power plants are often tied to, because the amount of thrust available is highly dependent on the amount of power available for the drive system. We will touch a little bit on the history of electric propulsion, as well as the different types of electric thrusters, their advantages and disadvantages, and how fission power plants can change the paradigm for how electric thrusters can be used. It’s important to realize that most electric propulsion is power-source-agnostic: all they require is electricity; how it’s produced usually doesn’t mean much to the drive system itself. As such, nuclear power plants are not going to be mentioned much in this post, until we look at the optimization of electric propulsion systems.
We also aren’t going to be looking at specific types of thrusters in this post. Instead, we’re going to do a brief overview of the general types of electric propulsion, their history, and how electrically propelled spacecraft differ from thermally or chemically propelled spacecraft. The next few posts will focus more on the specific technology itself, its’ application, and some of the current options for each type of thruster.
Electric Propulsion: What is It?
In its simplest definition, electric propulsion is any means of producing thrust in a spacecraft using electrical energy. There’s a wide range of different concepts that get rolled into this concept, so it’s hard to make generalizations about the capabilities of these systems. As a general rule of thumb, though, most electric propulsion systems are low-thrust, long-burn-time systems. Since they’re not used for launch, and instead for on-orbit maneuvering or interplanetary missions, the fact that these systems generally have very little thrust is a characteristic that can be worked with, although there’s a great deal of variety as far as how much thrust, and how efficient in terms of specific impulse, these systems are.
There are three very important basic concepts to understand when discussing electric propulsion: thrust-to-weight ratio (T/W), specific impulse (isp), and burn time. The first is self-explanatory: how much does the engine weigh, compared to how hard it can push, commonly in relation to Earth’s gravity: a T/W ratio of 1/1 means that the engine can hover, basically, but no more, A T/W ratio of 3/1 means that it can push just less than 3 times its weight off the ground. Specific impulse is a measure of how much thrust you get out of a given unit of propellant, and ignores everything else, including the weight of the propulsion system; it’s directly related to fuel efficiency, and is measured in seconds: if the drive system had a T/W ratio of 1/1, and was entirely made out of fuel, this would be the amount of time it could hover (assuming the engine is completely made out of propellant) for any given mass of fuel at 1 gee. Finally, you have burn time: the T/W ratio and isp give you the amount of thrust imparted per unit time based on the mass of the drive system and of the propellant, then the spacecraft’s mass is factored into the equation to give the total acceleration on the spacecraft for a given unit of time. The longer the engine burns, the more overall acceleration is produced.
Electric propulsion has a very poor thrust-to-weight ratio (as a general rule), but incredible specific impulse and burn times. The T/W ratio of many of the thrusters is very low, due to the fact that they provide very little thrust, often measured in micronewtons – often, the thrust is illustrated in pieces of paper, or pennies, in Earth gravity. However, this doesn’t matter once you’re in space: with no drag, and orbital mechanics not requiring the huge amounts of thrust over a very short period of time, the total amount of thrust is more important for most maneuvers, not how long it takes to build up said thrust. This is where the burn time comes in: most electric thrusters burn continuously, providing minute amounts of thrust over months, sometimes years; they push the spacecraft in the direction of travel until halfway through the mission, then turn around and start decelerating the spacecraft halfway through the trip (in energy budget terms, not necessarily in total mission time). The trump card for electric propulsion is in specific impulse: rather than the few hundred seconds of isp for chemical propulsion, or the thousand or so for a solid core nuclear thermal rocket, electric propulsion gives thousands of seconds of isp. This means less fuel, which in turn makes the spacecraft lighter, and allows for truly astounding total velocities; the downside to this is that it takes months or years to build these velocities, so escaping a gravity well (for instance, if you’re starting in low Earth orbit) can take months, so it’s best suited for long trips, or for very minor changes in orbit – such as for communications satellites, where it’s made these spacecraft smaller, more efficient, and with far longer lifetimes.
Electric propulsion is an old idea, but one that has yet to reach its’ full potential due to a number of challenges. Tsiolkovsy and Goddard both wrote about electric propulsion, but because neither was living in a time that it was possible to get into orbit, their ideas went unrealized in their lifetimes. The reason for this is that electric propulsion isn’t suitable for lifting rockets off the surface of a planet, but for in-space propulsion it’s incredibly promising. They both showed that the only thing that matters for a rocket engine is that, to put it simply, some mass needs to be thrown out the back of the rocket to provide thrust, it doesn’t matter what that something is. Electricity isn’t (directly) limited by thermodynamics (except through entropic losses), only by electric potential differences, and can offer very efficient conversion of electric potential to kinetic energy (the “throwing something out of the back” part of the system).
In chemical propulsion, combustion is used to cause heat to be produced, which causes the byproducts of the chemical reaction to expand and accelerate. This is then directed out of a nozzle to increase the velocity of the exhaust and provide lift. This is the first type of rocket ever developed; however, while advances are always being produced, in many ways the field is chasing after more and more esoteric or exotic ways to produce ever more marginal gains. The reason for this is that there’s only so much chemical potential energy available in a given system. The most efficient chemical engines top out around 500 seconds of specific impulse, and most hover around the 350 mark. The place that chemical engines excel though, is in thrust-to-weight ratio. They remain – arguably – our best, and currently our only, way of actually getting off Earth.
Thermal propulsion doesn’t rely on the chemical potential energy, instead the reaction mass is directly heated from some other source, causing expansion. The lighter the propellant, the more it expands, and therefore the more thrust is produced for a given mass; however, heavier propellants can be used to give more thrust per unit volume, at lower efficiencies. It should be noted that thermal propulsion is not only possible, but also common, with electrothermal thrusters, but we’ll dig more into that later.
Electric propulsion, on the other hand, is kind of a catch-all term when you start to look at it. There are many mechanisms for changing electrical energy into kinetic energy, and looking at most – but not all – of the options is what this blog post is about.
In order to get a better idea of how these systems work, and the fundamental principles behind electric propulsion, it may be best to look into the past. While the potential of electric propulsion is far from realized, it has a far longer history than many realize.
Futuristic Propulsion? … Sort Of, but With A Long Pedigree
The Origins of Electric Propulsion
When looking into the history of spaceflight, two great visionaries stand out: Konstantin Tsiolkosky and Robert Goddard. Both worked independently on the basics of rocketry, both provided much in the way of theory, and both were visionaries seeing far beyond their time to the potential of rocketry and spaceflight in general. Both were working on the questions of spaceflight and rocketry at the turn of the 20th century. Both also independently came up with the concept of electric propulsion; although who did it first requires some splitting of hairs: Goddard mentioned it first, but in a private journal, while Tsiolkovsky published the concept first in a scientific paper, even if the reference is fairly vague (considering the era, understandably so). Additionally, due to the fact that electricity was a relatively poorly understood phenomenon at the time (the nature of cathode and anode “rays” was much debated, and positively charged ions had yet to be formally described); and neither of these visionaries had a deep understanding of the concepts involved, their ideas being little more than just that: concepts that could be used as a starting point, not actual designs for systems that would be able to be used to propel a spacecraft.
The first mention of electric propulsion in the formal scientific literature was in 1911, in Russia. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote that “it is possible that in time we may use electricity to produce a large velocity of particles ejected from a rocket device.” He began to focus on the electron, rather than the ion, as the ejected particle. While he never designed a practical device, the promise of electric propulsion was clearly seen: “It is quite possible that electrons and ions can be used, i.e. cathode and especially anode rays. The force of electricity is unlimited and can, therefore, produce a powerful flux of ionized helium to serve a spaceship.” The lack of understanding of electric phenomena hindered him, though, and prevented him from ever designing a practical system, much less building one.
The first mention of electric propulsion in history is from Goddard, in 1906, in a private notebook, but as noted by Edgar Choueiri, in his excellent historical paper published in 2004 (a major source for this section), these early notes don’t actually describe (or even reference the use of) an electric propulsion drive system. This wasn’t a practical design (that didn’t come until 1917), but the basic principles were laid out for the acceleration of electrons (rather than positively charged ions) to the “speed of light.” For the next few years, the concept fermented in his mind, culminating in patents in 1912 (for an ionization chamber using magnetic fields, similar to modern ionization chambers) and in 1917 (for a “Method and Means for Producing Electrified Jets of Gas”). The third of three variants was for the first recognizable electric thruster, whichwould come to be known as an electrostatic thruster. Shortly after, though, America entered WWI, and Goddard spent the rest of his life focused on the then-far-more-practical field of chemical propulsion.
Other visionaries of rocketry also came up with concepts for electric propulsion. Yuri Kondratyuk (another, lesser-known, Russian rocket pioneer) wrote “Concerning Other Possible Reactive Drives,” which examined electric propulsion, and pointed out the high power requirements for this type of system. He didn’t just examine electron acceleration, but also ion acceleration, noting that the heavier particles provide greater thrust (in the same paper he may have designed a nascent colloid thruster, another type of electric propulsion).
Another of the first generation of rocket pioneers to look at the possibilities of electric propulsion was Hermann Oberth. His 1929 opus, “Ways to Spaceflight,” devoted an entire chapter to electric propulsion. Not only did he examine electrostatic thrusters, but he looked at the practicalities of a fully electric-powered spacecraft.
Finally, we come to Valentin Glushko, another early Russian rocketry pioneer, and giant of the Soviet rocketry program. In 1929, he actually built an electric thruster (an electrothermal system, which vaporized fine wires to produce superheated particles), although this particular concept never flew.By this time, it was clear that much more work had to be done in many fields for electric propulsion to be used; and so, one by one, these early visionaries turned their attention to chemical rockets, while electric propulsion sat on the dusty shelves of spaceflight concepts that had yet to be realized. It collected dust next to centrifugal artificial gravity, solar sails, and other practical ideas that didn’t have the ability to be realized for decades.
The First Wave of Electric Propulsion
Electric propulsion began to be investigated after WWII, both in the US and in the USSR, but it would be another 19 years of development before a flight system was introduced. The two countries both focused on one general type of electric propulsion, the electrostatic thruster, but they looked at different types of this thruster, reflecting the technical capabilities and priorities of each country. The US focused on what is now known as a gridded ion thruster, most commonly called an ion drive, while the USSR focused on the Hall effect thruster, which uses a magnetic field perpendicular to the current direction to accelerate particles. Both of these concepts will be examined more in the section on electrostatic thrusters; though, for now it’s worth noting that the design differences in these concepts led to two very different systems, and two very different conceptions of how electric propulsion would be used in the early days of spaceflight.
In the US, the most vigorous early proponent of electric propulsion was Ernst Stuhlinger, who was the project manager for many of the earliest electric propulsion experiments. He was inspired by the work of Oberth, and encouraged by von Braun to pursue this area, especially now that being able to get into space to test and utilize this type of propulsion was soon to be at hand. His leadership and designs had a lasting impact on the US electric propulsion program, and can still be seen today.
The first spacecraft to be propelled using electric propulsion was the SERT-I spacecraft, a follow on to a suborbital test (Program 661A, Test A, first of three suborbital tests for the USAF) of the ion drives that would be used. These drive system used cesium and mercury as a propellant, rather than the inert gasses that are commonly used today. The reason for this is that these metals both have very low ionization energy, and a reasonably favorable mass for providing more significant thrust. Tungsten buttons were used in the place of the grids used in modern ion drives, and a tantalum wire was used to neutralize the ion stream. Unfortunately, the cesium engine short circuited, but the mercury system was tested for 31 minutes and 53 cycles of the engine. This not only demonstrated ion propulsion in principle, but just as importantly demonstrated ion beam neutralization. This is important for most electric propulsion systems, because this prevents the spacecraft from becoming negatively charged, and possibly even attracting the ion stream back to the spacecraft, robbing it of thrust and contaminating sensors on board (which was a common problem in early electric propulsion systems).
The SNAPSHOT program, which launched the SNAP 10A nuclear reactor on April 3, 1965, also had a cesium ion engine as a secondary experimental payload. The failure of the electrical bus prevented this from being operated, but SNAPSHOT could be considered the first nuclear electric spacecraft in history (if unsuccessful).
The ATS program continued to develop the cesium thrusters from 1968 through 1970. The ATS-4 flight was the first demonstration of an orbital spacecraft with electric propulsion, but sadly there were problems with beam neutralization in the drive systems, indicating more work needed to be done. ATS-5 was a geostationary satellite meant to have electrically powered stationkeeping, but was not able to despin the satellite from launch, meaning that the thruster couldn’t be used for propulsion (the emission chamber was flooded with unionized propellant), although it was used as a neutral plasma source for experimentation. ATS-6 was a similar design, and successfully operated for a total of over 90 hours (one failed early due to a similar emission chamber flooding issue). SERT-II and SCATHA satellites continued to demonstrate improvements as well, using both cesium and mercury ion devices (SCATHA wasn’t optimized as a drive system, but used similar components to test spacecraft charge neutralization techniques).
These tests in the 1960s never developed into an operational satellite that used ion propulsion for another thirty years. Challenges with the aforementioned thrusters becoming saturated, spacecraft contamination issues due to highly reactive cesium and mercury propellants, and relatively low engine lifetimes (due to erosion of the screens used for this type of ion thruster) didn’t offer a large amount of promise for mission planners. The high (2000+ s) specific impulse was very promising for interplanetary spacecraft, but the low reliability, and reasonably short lifetimes, of these early ion drives made them unreliable, or of marginal use, for mission planners. Ground testing of various concepts continued in the US, but additional flight missions were rare until the end of the 1990s. This likely helped feed the idea that electric propulsion is new and futuristic, rather than having its’ conceptual roots reaching all the way back to the dawn of the age of flight.
Early Electric Propulsion in the USSR
Unlike in the US, the USSR started development of electric propulsion early, and continued its development almost continuously to the modern day. Sergei Korolev’s OKB-1 was tasked, from the beginning of the space race, with developing a wide range of technologies, including nuclear powered spacecraft and the development of electric propulsion.
Part of this may be the different architecture that the Soviet engineers used: rather than having ions be accelerated toward a pair of charged grids, the Soviet designs used a stream of ionized gas, with a perpendicular magnetic field to accelerate the ions. This is the Hall effect thruster, which has several advantages over the gridded ion thruster, including simplicity, fewer problems with erosion, as well as higher thrust (admittedly, at the cost of specific impulse). Other designs, including the PPT, or pulsed plasma thruster, were also experimented with (the ZOND-2 spacecraft carried a PPT system). However, due to the rapidly growing Soviet mastery of plasma physics, the Hall effect thruster became a very attractive system.
There are two main types of Hall thruster that were experimented with: the stationary plasma thruster (SPT) and the thruster with anode layer (TAL), which refer to how the electric charge is produced, the behavior of the plasma, and the path that the current follows through the thruster. The TAL was developed in 1957 by Askold Zharinov, and proven in 1958-1961, but a prototype wasn’t built until 1967 (using cesium, bismuth, cadmium, and xenon propellants, with isp of up to 8000 s), and it wasn’t published in open literature until 1973. This thruster can be characterized by a narrow acceleration zone, meaning it can be more compact.
The SPT, on the other hand, can be larger, and is the most common form of Hall thruster used today. Complications in the plasma dynamics of this system meant that it took longer to develop, but its’ greater electrical efficiency and thrust mean that it’s a more attractive choice for station-keeping thrusters. Research began in 1962, under Alexy Morozov at the Institute of Atomic Energy; and was later moved to the Moscow Aviation institute, and then again to what became known as FDB Fakel (now Fakel Industries, still a major producer of Hall thrusters). The first breadboard thruster was built in 1968, and flew in 1970. It was then used for the Meteor series of weather satellites for attitude control. Development continued on the design until today, but these types of thrusters weren’t widely used, despite their higher thrust and lack of spacecraft contamination (unlike similar vintage American designs).
It would be a mistake to think that only the US and the USSR were working on these concepts, though. Germany also had a diversity of programs. Arcjet thrusters, as well as magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters, were researched by the predecessors of the DLR. This work was inherited by the University of Stuttgart Institute for Space Systems, which remains a major research institution for electric propulsion in many forms. France, on the other hand, focused on the Hall effect thruster, which provides lower specific impulse, but more thrust. The Japanese program tended to focus on microwave frequency ion thrusters, which later provided the main means of propulsion for the Hayabusa sample return mission (more on that below).
The Birth of Modern Electric Propulsion
For many people, electric propulsion was an unknown until 1998, when NASA launched the Deep Space 1 mission. DS1 was a technology demonstration mission, part of the New Millennium program of advanced technology testing and experimentation. A wide array of technologies were to be tested in space, after extensive ground testing; but, for the purposes of Beyond NERVA, the most important of these new concepts was the first operational ion drive, the NASA Solar Technology Applications Readiness thruster (NSTAR). As is typical of many modern NASA programs, DS1 far exceeded the minimum requirements. Originally meant to do a flyby of the asteroid 9969 Braille, the mission was extended twice: first for a transit to the comet 19/P Borrelly, and later to extend engineering testing of the spacecraft.
In many ways, NSTAR was a departure from most of the flight-tested American electric propulsion designs. The biggest difference was with the propellant used: cesium and mercury were easy to ionize, but a combination of problems with neutralizing the propellant stream, and the resultant contamination of the spacecraft and its’ sensors (as well as minimizing chemical reaction complications and growing conservatism concerning toxic component minimization in spacecraft), led to the decision to use noble gasses, in this case xenon. This, though, doesn’t mean that it was a great overall departure from the gridded ion drives of US development; it was an evolution, not a revolution, in propulsion technology. Despite an early (4.5 hour) failure of the NSTAR thruster, it was able to be restarted, and the overall thruster life was 8,200 hours, and the backup achieved more than 500 hours beyond that.
Not only that, but this was not the only use of this thruster. The Dawn mission to the minor planet Ceres uses an NSTAR thruster, and is still in operation around that body, sending back incredibly detailed and fascinating information about hydrocarbon content in the asteroid belt, water content, and many other exciting discoveries for when humanity begins to mine the asteroid belt.
Many satellites, especially geostationary satellites, use electric propulsion today, for stationkeeping and even for final orbital insertion. The low thrust of these systems is not a major detriment, since they can be used over long periods of time to ensure a stable orbital path; and the small amount of propellant required allows for larger payloads or longer mission lifetimes with the same mass of propellant.
After decades of being considered impractical, immature, or unreliable, electric propulsion has come out of the cold. Many designs for interplanetary spacecraft use electric propulsion, due to their high specific impulse and ability to maximize the benefits of the high-isp, low-thrust propulsion regime that these thruster systems excel at.
Another type of electric thruster is also becoming popular for small-sat users: electrothermal thrusters, which offer higher thrust from chemically inert propellants in compact forms, at the cost of specific impulse. These thrusters offer the benefits of high-thrust chemical propulsion in a more compact and chemically inert form – a major requirement for most smallsats which are secondary payloads that have to demonstrate that they won’t threaten the primary payload.
So, now that we’ve looked into how we’ve gotten to this point, let’s see what the different possibilities are, and what is used today.
What are the Options?
The most well-known and popularized version of electric propulsion is electrostatic propulsion, which uses an ionization chamber (or ionic fluid) to develop a positively charged stream of ions, which are then accelerated out the “nozzle” of the thruster. A stream of electrons is added to the propellant as it leaves the spacecraft, to prevent the buildup of a negative charge. There are many different variations of this concept, including the best known types of thrusters (the Hall effect and gridded ion thrusters), as well as field effect thrusters and electrospray thrusters.
The next most common version – and one with a large amount of popular mentions these days – is the electromagnetic thruster. Here, the propellant is converted to a relatively dense plasma, and usually (but not always) magnets are used to accelerate this plasma at high speed out of a magnetic nozzle using the electromagnetic and thermal properties of plasma physics. In the cases that the plasma isn’t accelerated using magnetic fields directly, magnetic nozzles and other plasma shaping functions are used to constrict or expand the plasma flow. There are many different versions, from magnetohydrodynamic thrusters (MHD, where a charge isn’t transferred into the plasma from the magnetic field), to the less-well-known magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD, where the Lorentz force is used to at least partially accelerate the plasma), electrodeless plasma, and pulsed inductive thruster (PIT).
Thirdly, we have electrothermal drive systems, basically highly advanced electric heaters used to heat a propellant. These tend to be the less energy efficient, but high thrust, systems (although, theoretically, some versions of electromagnetic thrusters can achieve high thrust as well). The most common types of electrothermal systems proposed have been arcjet, resistojet, and inductive heating drives; the first two actually being popular choices for reaction control systems for large, nuclear-powered space stations. Inductive heating has already made a number of appearances on this page, both in testing apparatus (CFEET and NTREES are both inductively heated), and as part of a bimodal NTR (the nuclear thermal electric rocket, or NTER, covered on our NTR page).
The last two systems, MHD and electrothermal, often use similar mechanisms of operation when you look at the details, and the line between the two isn’t necessarily clear. For instance, some authors describe the pulsed plasma thruster (PPT), which most commonly uses a solid propellant such as PTFE (Teflon) as a propellant, which is vaporized and occasionally ionized electrically before it’s accelerated out of the spacecraft, as an MHD, while others describe it as an arcjet, and which term best applies depends on the particulars of the system in question. A more famous example of this gray area would be the VASIMR thruster, (VAriable Specific Impulse through Magnetic Resonance). This system uses dense plasma, contained in a magnetic field, but the plasma is inductively heated using RF energy, and then accelerated due to the thermal behavior of the plasma while being contained magnetically. Because of this, the system can be seen as an MHD thruster, or as an electrothermal thruster (that debate, and the way these terms are used, was one of the more enjoyable parts of the editing process of this blog post, and I’m sure one that will continue as we continue to examine EP).
Finally, we come to the photon drives. These use photons as the reaction mass – and as such, are sometimes somewhat jokingly called flashlight drives. They have the lowest thrust of any of these systems, but the exhaust velocity is literally the speed of light, so they have insanely high specific impulse. Just… don’t expect any sort of significant acceleration, getting up to speed with these systems could take decades, if not centuries; making them popular choices for interstellar systems, rather than interplanetary ones. Photonic drives have another option, as well, though: the power source for the photons doesn’t need to be on board the spacecraft at all! This is the principle behind the lightsail (the best-known version being the solar sail): a fixed installation can produce a laser, or other stream of photons (such as a maser, out of microwaves, in the Starwisp concept), which then impact a reflective surface to provide thrust. This type of system follows a different set of rules and limitations, however, from systems where the power supply (and associated equipment), drive system, and any propellant needed are on-board the spacecraft, so we won’t go too much into depth on that concept initially, instead focusing on designs that have everything on-board the spacecraft.
Each of these systems has its’ advantages and disadvantages. Electrostatic thrusters are very simple to build: ionization chambers are easy, and creating a charged field is easy as well; but to get it to work there has to be something generating that charge, and whatever that something is will be hit by the ionized particles used for propellant, causing erosion. Plasmadynamic thrusters can provide incredible flexibility, but generally require large power plants; and reducing the power requirements requires superconducting magnets and other materials challenges. In addition, plasma physics, while becoming increasingly well known, provides a unique set of challenges. Thermoelectric thrusters are simple, but generally provide poor specific impulse, and thermal cycling of the components causes wear. Finally, photon drives are incredibly efficient but very, very low thrust systems, requiring exceedingly long burn times to produce any noticeable thrust. Let’s look at each of these options in a bit more detail, and look at the practical limitations that each system has.
Optimizing the System: The Fiddly Bits
As we’ve seen, there’s a huge array of technologies that fall under the umbrella of “electric propulsion,” each with their advantages and disadvantages. The mission that is going to be performed is going to determine which types of thrusters are feasible or not, depending on a number of factors. If the mission is stationkeeping for a geosynchronous communications satellite, then the Hall thruster has a wonderful balance between thrust and specific impulse. If the mission is a sample return mission to an asteroid, then the lower thrust, higher specific impulse gridded ion thruster is better, because the longer mission time (and greater overall delta-v needed for the mission) make this low-thrust, high-efficiency thruster a far more ideal option. If the mission is stationkeeping on a small satellite that is a piggyback load, the arcjet may be the best option, due to its’ compactness, the chemically inert nature of the fuel, and relatively high thrust. If higher thrust is needed over a longer period for a larger spacecraft, MPD may be the best bet. Very few systems are designed to deal with a wide range of capabilities in spaceflight, and electric propulsion is no different.
There are other key concepts to consider in the selection of an electric propulsion system as well. The first is the efficiency of this system: how much electricity is required for the thruster, compared to how much energy is imparted onto the spacecraft in the form of the propellant. This efficiency will vary within each different specific design, and its’ improvement is a major goal in every thruster’s development process. The quality of electrical power needed is also an important consideration: some require direct, current, some require alternating current, some require RF or microwave power inputs, and matching the electricity produced to the thruster itself is a necessary step, which on occasion can make one thruster more attractive than another by reducing the overall mass of the system. Another key question is the total amount of change in velocity needed for the mission, and the timeframe over which this delta-v can be applied; in this case, the longer timeframe you have, the more efficient your thruster can be at lower thrust (trading thrust for specific impulse).
However, looking past just the drive itself, there are quite a few things about the spacecraft itself, and the power supply, that also have to be considered. The first consideration is the power supply available to the drive system. If you’ve got an incredibly efficient drive system that requires a MW to run, then you’re going to be severely limited in your power supply options (there are very few, if any, drive systems that require this high a charge). For more realistic systems, the mass of the power supply, and therefore of the spacecraft, is going to have a direct impact on the amount of delta-v that is able to be applied over a given time: if you want your spacecraft to be able to, say maneuver out of the way of a piece of space debris, or a mission to another planet needs to arrive within a given timeframe, the less mass for a given unit of power, the better. This is an area where nuclear power can offer real benefits: while it’s debatable whether solar or nuclear power is better for low-powered applications in terms of power per unit mass, which is known in engineering as specific power. Once higher power levels are needed, however, nuclear shines: it can be difficult (but is far from impossible) to scale nuclear down in size and power output, but it scales up very easily and efficiently, and this scaling is non-linear. A smaller output reactor and one that has 3 times the output could be very similar in terms of core size, and the power conversion systems used also often have similar scaling advantages. There are additional advantages, as well: radiators are generally speaking smaller in sail area, and harder to damage, than photovoltaic cells, and can often be repaired more easily (once a PV cell get hit with space debris, it needs to be replaced, but a radiator tube designed to be repaired can in many cases just be patched or welded and continue functioning). This concept is known as power density, or power-per-unit-volume, and also has a significant impact on the capabilities of many (especially large) spacecraft. The specific volume of the power supply is going to be a limiting factor when it comes to launching the vehicle itself, since it has to fit into the payload fairing of the launch vehicle (or the satellite bus of the satellite that will use it).
The specific power, on the other hand, has quite a few different implications, most importantly in the available payload mass fraction of the spacecraft itself. Without a payload, of whatever type is needed, either scientific missions or crew life support and habitation modules, then there’s no point to the mission, and the specific power of the entire power and propulsion unit has a large impact on the amount of mass that is able to be brought on the mission.
Another factor to consider when designing an electrically propelled spacecraft is how the capabilities and limitations of the entire power and propulsion unit interact with the spacecraft itself. Just as in chemical and thermal rockets, the ratio of wet (or fueled) to dry (unfueled) mass has a direct impact on the vehicle’s capabilities: Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation still applies, and in long missions there can be a significant mass of propellant on-board, despite the high isp of most of these thrusters. The specific mass of the power and propulsion system will have a huge impact on this, so the more power-dense, and more mass-efficient you are when converting your electricity into useful power for your thruster, the more capable the spacecraft will be.
Finally, the overall energy budget for the mission needs to be accounted for: how much change in velocity, or delta-v, is needed for the mission, and over what time period this change in velocity can be applied, are perhaps the biggest factors in selecting one type of thruster over another. We’ve already discussed the relative advantages and disadvantages of many of the different types of thrusters earlier, so we won’t examine it in detail again, but this consideration needs to be taken into account for any designed spacecraft.
With each of these factors applied appropriately, it’s possible to create a mathematical description of the spacecraft’s capabilities, and match it to a given mission profile, or (as is more common) to go the other way and design a spacecraft’s basic design parameters for a specific mission. After all, a spacecraft designed to deliver 100 kg of science payload to Jupiter in two years is going to have a very different design than one that’s designed to carry 100 kg to the Moon in two weeks, due to the huge differences in mission profile. The math itself isn’t that difficult, but for now we’ll stick with the general concepts, rather than going into the numbers (there are a number of dimensionless variables in the equations, and for a lot of people that becomes confusing to understand).
Let’s look instead at some of the more important parts of the power and propulsion unit that are tied more directly to the drives themselves.
Just as in any electrical system, you can’t just hook wires up to a battery, solar panel, or power conversion system and feed it into the thruster, the electricity needs to be conditioned first. This ensures the correct type of current (alternating or direct), the correct amount of current, the correct amperage… all the things that are done on Earth multiple times in our power grid have to be done on-board the spacecraft as well, and this is one of the biggest factors when it comes to what specific drive is placed on a particular satellite.
After the electricity is generated, it goes through a number of control systems to first ensure protection for the spacecraft from things like power surges and inappropriate routing, and then goes to a system to actually distribute the power, not just to the thruster, but to the rest of the on-board electrical systems. Each of these requires different levels of power, and as such there’s a complex series of systems to distribute and manage this power. If electric storage is used, for instance for a solar powered satellite, this is also where that energy is tapped off and used to charge the batteries (with the appropriate voltage and battery charge management capability).
After the electricity needed for other systems has been rerouted, it is directed into a system to ensure that the correct amount and type (AC, DC, necessary voltage, etc) of electricity is delivered to the thruster. These power conditioning units, or PCUs, are some of the most complex systems in an electric propulsion systems, and have to be highly reliable. Power fluctuations will affect the functioning of a thruster (possibly even forcing it to shut down in the case of too low a current), and in extreme cases can even damage a thruster, so this is a key function that must be provided by these systems. Due to this, some designers of electrical drive systems don’t design those systems in-house, instead selling the thruster alone, and the customer must contract or design the PCU independently of the supplier (although obviously with the supplier’s support).
Finally, the thermal load on the thruster itself needs to be managed. In many cases, small enough thermal loads on the thruster mean that radiation, or thermal convection through the propellant stream, is sufficient for managing this, but for high-powered systems, an additional waste heat removal system may be necessary. If this is the case, then it’s an additional system that needs to be designed and integrated into the system, and the amount of heat generated will play a major factor in the types of heat rejection used.
There’s a lot more than just these factors to consider when integrating an electric propulsion system into a spacecraft, but it tends to get fairly esoteric fairly quickly, and the best way to understand it is to look at the relevant mathematical functions for a better understanding. Up until this point, I’ve managed to avoid using the equations behind these concepts, because for many people it’s easier to grasp the concepts without the numbers. This will change in the future (as part of the web pages associated with these blog posts), but for now I’m going to continue to try and leave the math out of the posts themselves.
Conclusions, and Upcoming Posts
As we’ve seen, electric propulsion is a huge area of research and design, and one that extends all the way back to the dawn of rocketry. Despite a slow start, research has continued more or less continuously across the world in a wide range of different types of electric propulsion.
We also saw that the term “electric propulsion” is very vague, with a huge range of capabilities and limitations for each system. I was hoping to do a brief look at each type of electric propulsion in this post (but longer than a paragraph or two each), but sadly I discovered that just covering the general concepts, history, and integration of electric propulsion was already a longer-than-average blog post. So, instead, we got a brief glimpse into the most general basics of electrothermal, electrostatic, magnetoplasmadynamic, and photonic thrusters, with a lot more to come in the coming posts.
Finally, we looked at the challenges of integrating an electric propulsion system into a spacecraft, and some of the implications for the very wide range of capabilities and limitations that this drive concept offers. This is an area that will be expanded a lot as well, since we barely scratched the surface. We also briefly looked at the other electrical systems that a spacecraft has in between the power conversion system and the thruster itself, and some of the challenges associated with using electricity as your main propulsion system.
Our next post will look at two similar in concept, but different in mechanics, designs for electric propulsion: electrothermal and magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters. I’ve already written most of the electrothermal side, and have a good friend who’s far better than I at MPD, so hopefully that one will be coming soon.
The post after that will focus on electrostatic thrusters. Due to the fact that these are some of the most widely used, and also some of the most diverse in the mechanisms used, this may end up being its’ own post, but at this point I’m planning on also covering photon drive systems (mostly on-board but also lightsail-based concepts) in that post as well to wrap up our discussion on the particulars of electric propulsion.
Once we’ve finished our look at the different drive systems, we’ll look at how these systems don’t have to be standalone concepts. Many designs for crewed spacecraft integrate both thermal and electric nuclear propulsion into a single propulsion stage, bimodal nuclear thermal rockets. We’ll examine two different design concepts, one American (the Copernicus-B), and one Russian (the TEM stage), in that post, and look at the relative advantages and disadvantages of each concept.
I would like to acknowledge the huge amount of help that Roland Antonius Gabrielli of the University of Stuttgart Institute for Space Studies has been in this post, and the ones to follow. His knowledge of these topics has made this a far better post than it would have been without his invaluable input.
As ever, I hope you’ve enjoyed the post. Feel free to leave a comment below, and join our Facebook group to join in the discussion!
A Critical History of Electric Propulsion: The First Fifty Years, Choueiri Princeton 2004 http://mae.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/ChoueiriHistJPC04.pdf
A Method and Means of Producing Jets of Electrified Gas, US Patent 1363037A, Goddard 1917 https://patents.google.com/patent/US1363037A/en
A Synopsis of Ion Propulsion Development Projects in the United States: SERT I to Deep Space 1, Sovey et al, NASA Glenn Research Center 1999 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19990116725.pdf
History of the Hall Thruster’s Development in the USSR, Kim et al 2007 http://erps.spacegrant.org/uploads/images/images/iepc_articledownload_1988-2007/2007index/IEPC-2007-142.pdf
NSTAR Technology Validation, Brophy et al 2000 https://trs.jpl.nasa.gov/handle/2014/13884
Review Papers for Electric Propulsion
Electric Propulsion: Which One for my Spacecraft? Jordan 2000 http://www.stsci.edu/~jordan/other/electric_propulsion_3.pdf
Electric Propulsion, Jahn and Choueiri, Princeton University 2002 https://alfven.princeton.edu/publications/ep-encyclopedia-2001
Joint Optimization of the Trajectory and the Main Parameters of an Electric Propulsion Spacecraft, Petukhov et al 2017 https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/D49CFC08B1988AA61C8107737D614C89A86DB8DAE56D09D3E8E60C552C9566ABCBB8497CF9D0CDCFB9773815820C7678
Power Sources and Systems of Satellites and Deep Space Probes (slideshow), Farkas ESA http://www.ujfi.fei.stuba.sk/esa/slidy_prezentacie/power_sources_and_systems_of_satellites_and_deep_space_probes_mk_2.pdf