Magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) Thrusters

Coauthor: Roland A. Gabrielli, IRS

NASA MPD concept

Self-field MPD Thruster Concept, image courtesy NASA

Magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters are a high-performance electric propulsion concept; and, as such, offer greater thrust potential than the electrostatic thrusters that we’ll look at in the next blog post. They also tend to have higher power requirements. Therefore they have not been used as a dedicated thruster on operational spacecraft to date, although they’ve been researched since the 1960s in the USSR, the USA, Western Germany, Italy, and Japan. Only a few demonstrators have flown on both Russian and Japanese experimental satellites. They remain an attractive and cost efficient option for high-thrust electric propulsion including Mars transfer engines.

We have discussed electric thrusters which are principally thermal thrusters: the propellant runs into a reaction chamber, tanks heat and expands through a nozzle. This is as true for VASIMR, resistojets, thrusters based on inductive plasma generators, and also for arcjets. Yet, VASIMR introduces a different set of physics for thrusters, magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). This term designates the harnessing of fluids (hence ‘hydro’) with the forces (hence ‘dynamic’) emerging from magnetic fields (hence ‘magneto’). In order to effectively use magnetic forces, the fluid has to be susceptible to them, and its particles should somehow be electrically polar or even charged. The latter case, plasma, is the most common in electric propulsion.

Since the characteristics of plasma did not play a vital role in the working principles of the previous thermo-electric thrusters, we should briefly discuss the concept. The energy of plasma is so high that electrons are no longer tied to their atoms, which then become ions. Both electrons and ions are charged particles whizzing around in a shared cloud, the plasma. Despite being neutral to the outward due to containing the same amount of negative as of positive charges, the plasma interacts with magnetic fields. These magnetohydrodynamic interactions present themselves for various applications, ranging from power generators in terrestrial power plants over magnetic plasma bottles to propulsion.

In VASIMR, these forces push the hot plasma away from the walls, protecting both the walls from damaging heat loads and the plasma from cooling so rapidly that thrust is lost. This allows VASIMR to have a very hot medium for expansion. While this puts VASIMR among MHD thrusters, it would not yet be a genuine “plasma thruster,” if it was not for the magnetic nozzle, which adds electromagnetic components to the forces generating the thrust. Among these components, the most important is the Lorentz-force, which occurs when a charged particle moves through a magnetic field. The Lorentz-force is at right angles to both the local magnetic field line as well as to the particle’s trajectory.

There are two main characteristics of an MPD thruster:

  1. The plasma constitutes a substantial part of the medium, which imparts a significant integral Lorentz force,
  2. the integral Lorentz force has a relevant contribution towards the exhaust direction.

The electromagnetic contribution is the real distinction from the previous thermal approaches, as the kinetic energy of the jet is not only gained from undirected heating, but also from a very directed acceleration. The greater the electric discharge, and the more powerful the magnetic field, the more the propellant is accelerated, therefore the more the exhaust velocity is increased. Besides the Lorentz force, there are also minor electromagnetic effects, like a “swirl” and Hall acceleration (which will be looked at in the next blog post), but the defining electromagnetic contribution of MPD thrusters is the Lorentz force. Since the latter applies on a plasma, this type of thrusters is called magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) thrusters.

The Lorentz force contribution is also the way magnetic nozzles work:the forces involved can be broken into three parts: along the thruster axis, toward the thruster axis, and at right angle to both of these around the axis. The first part adds to the thrust, the second pushes the plasma towards to the centre, the third generates a swirling effect, both contributing to the thrust as to spreading the arc into a radial symmetry.

 

X16 Plasma

X-16 Plasma plume with argon propellant, ISS USTUTT

There are various ways to build MPD thrusters, with differing different propellants, geometries, methods of plasma and magnetic field generation, and operation regimes, stationary or pulsed. The actual design depends mostly on the available power. The core of the most common architecture for stationary MPD thrusters is the arc plasma generator, which makes MPD thrusters seem fairly similar to thermal arcjets. But that’s just in appearance, as you can in fact build MPD thrusters almost completely free of a thermal contribution to the thrust, as evidenced by the German Aerospace Center’s (DLR) X-16, or the PEGASUS thruster that we’ll look at later in this post.

 

These types of thruster (technically known as stationary MPD thrusters with arc generation) differ most noticeably is the way the magnetic field is generated:

  • Applied-field (AF) MPD thrusters, endowed with either and torus of permanent magnets, or a Helmholtz coil placed around the jet.
  • Self-field (SF) MPD thrusters, which generate their magnetic field by induction around the current travelling in the arc.

Note that arc generator based AF-MPD thrusters also experience (to a minor extent) self-field effects. A schematic of an SF-MPD thruster is shown below, illustrating the conceptual differences between arcjets, and MPD thrusters (the top half is an MPD, the bottom half is an arcjet, note the difference in throst length and nozzle size). The most crucial difference is the contact of the arc with the anode. While a very long arc is undesirable in arcjets (for very important design reasons which we don’t have time to go into here), in the MPD thruster this is crucial to provide the thruster with sufficient Lorentz force. Moreover, the longer the oblique leg of the arc, the more of the Lorentz force will point out of the thruster. This effect means that relatively large anode diameters are the norm with MPD thrusters of this type. Therefore, simple arcjets and other electro-thermal thrusters tend to be more slender than most arc based MPD thrusters. The anode diameter may however not be too large, as the arc will be more resistive with increasing lengths, entailing more and more energy losses.

Self Field MPD

Schematic opposing an SF-MPD thruster above the dash-dotted axis to a simple Arcjet below (Institute of Space Systems, USTUTT). F: thrust, ce: exhaust velocity,m: propellant mass flow (feed). Note how the arc pushes out far of the nozzle exit. The dashed lines j indicate the current in the MPD thruster’s arc, and the fat lines B the induced magnetic field. Its circle would be within a plane vertical to the thruster axis. The thin arrows show the local direction of both lines. It is to these arrows that the Lorentz-force FLor is at right angles.

In stationary arc based MPD thrusters, the choice of propellant is mainly dictated by the ease of ionisation which tends to be more important than molar mass, which is what causes the preference for hydrogen in thermal thrusters. This shift is the more pronounced, the more the Lorentz-force contribution outweighs the thermal contribution. Consequently, many arc based MPD experiments are run with noble gasses, like Helium, or Neon; while Xenon is often discussed in pure development, it is rarely considered for missions due to its cost. The most important noble gas for MPD is thus Argon. Other easily ionised substances are liquid alkali metals, commonly Lithium, which enables very good efficiencies. However, the complicated propellant feed system and the risk of depositions in that case is a serious drawback. Nevertheless, there is still a very large field for hydrogen or ammonia as propellants.

The major lifetime restricting component in arc based MPD are the cathode and – to a minor extent – anode lifetimes. These will erode over time which is caused by the plasma arc. The arc will gnaw at the metals due to electron emission, sublimation and other mechanisms. Depending on the quality of the design and the material, this will be significant after a few hundred hours of operation, or a tens of thousands. Extending their life is a challenge, because the plasma behavior will change depending on a number of factors determined by the plasma and the system in question. To add to the complexity, the geometry of the electrodes, affected by the erosion, is one of them. Because of this, some designs have easily replaceable cathodes, others (like the Pegasus which we’ll cover below) just swap out the drive: the original design for the SEI that Pegasus was proposed for actually had seven thrusters on board, run in series as the cathode wore out on each one.

AF-MPD – The Lower-Power Option

 

Japanese AF-MPD, permanent magnet

Japanese AF-MPD concept with 0.1 T permanent magnet

Depending on the available power, the arc current in MPD may or may not be intense enough to induce a significant magnetic self-field. At the lower end of the power scale, this is definitely breaking the MPD thruster principle. Because of this, in lower powered systems an external magnet  is required to create the magnetic field, which is why it’s called an applied field MPD. In general, these systems  range from 50 to 500 kW of electric power, although this is far from a hard limit. The advantage of applied field MPD thrusters over a self-field types (more on the self-field later) is that the magnetic fields can be manipulated independent of the amount of charge running through the cathode and anode, which can mean longer component life for the thruster. There are two main approaches to provide for an external field: The first is a ring of a permanent magnet around the volume occupied by the arc; the second is the placement of a Helmholtz coil instead (an electromagnet whose coil wraps around the lengthwise axis of the thruster, sometimes using superconductors). At the lower ending of the power range, the permanent magnet may be the better option because it doesn’t consume what little electricity you have, while the electromagnets are more interesting at the upper end.

All these solutions do require cooling, and the requirements are important the more powerful the magnet is. This cooling can be achieved passively at the lower ending of the power range (given enough free volume). For mid level power, the cold propellant itself can provide the cooling prior to running alongside the hot anode and entering the plasma generator. Using cold propellant for cooling the thrusters is called regenerative cooling (a mainstay of current chemical and nuclear thermal engines). The most performant magnets for AF-MPD, superconducting coils, must be brought to really low temperatures, and this tends to require an additional, secondary coolant cycle, including an own refrigeration system, with pumps, compressors, and radiators.

ISS SX-3 AF-MPD Helmholtz coil

Recent development at the Institute of Space Systems, Stuttgart: SX 3 prior experimentation. The outer flange covers a Helmholtz coil.

The nice thing about the electromagnets is that it’s possible to tune the strength of the field in a certain range. If the coil degrades over time, more electricity (and coolant, due to increased electrical resistance) can be pumped through. This isn’t an option for a permanent magnet. However, the magnetic field generation equipment is one of the lifetime limiting components of this type of thruster, so it’s worth considering.

 

There’s not really a limit to how much power you use in an applied field MPD thruster, and especially with a Helmholtz coil you can theoretically tune your drive system in a number of interesting ways, like increasing the strength to constrict the plasma more if there’s a lower-mass stream. Something happens once the plasma has enough charge going through it, though: the unavoidable self field contribution increases. .  Besides increasing the complexity of the determination of the field topology, the self field is an advantage. At sufficient power, you can get away without coil or magnets, making the system lighter, simpler, and less temperature-sensitive. This is why most very high powered systems use the self-field type of MPD.

Before we look at this concept in the next subsection, let us have a look at current developments from over the world. Table ## summarises a few interesting AF-MPD thrusters, both the performance parameters thrust F, exhaust velocity c_e, thrust efficiency η_T, electric (feed) power P_e and jet power P_T, and design,  like anode radius r_A, cathode radius r_C, arc current I, magnetic field B and the propellant. Recent AF-MPD-thruster development was conducted by Myers in the USA, by MAI (the Moscow Aviation Institute) in Russia, at the University of Tokyo in Japan, and SX 3 in Germany at the Institute of Space Systems, Stuttgart. The types X 9 and X 16 in table ## are the IRS’ legacy from the German Aerospace Center (X 9, X 16).

Thruster Pro-
pellant
r_A / mm r_C / mm I / A B / T F / mN c_e/ km/s η_T / % P_e / kW P_T / kW
Myers Ar 25 6.4 1000 0.12 1400 14 22 44.5 9.8
MAI Li 80 22.5 1800 0.09 2720 33.6 44.1 103.5 45.7
U Tokyo H2 40? 4 200 0.1 50 55.6 19.3 7.2 1.4
SX 3 Ar 43 6 450 0.4 2270 37.9 58 74 42.9
X 16 Ar 20 3 80 0.6 251 35.9 38.8 11.6 4.5
X 16 Xe 20 3 80 0.6 226 25.1 29.6 9.6 2.84
X 9 Ar 20 5 1200 0.17 2500 20.8 28.1 93 26.1

Design parameters and experimental performance data from various AF-MPD thrusters from over the world. Gabrielli 2018

SX-3 plume (argon propellant), IRS

Visual plume of SX 3 at the Institute of Space Systems, Stuttgart. 

Russian 100 kWe AF-MPD

Russian 100 kWe lithium AF-MPD thruster.

Self-Field MPD: When Power Isn’t a Problem

In the previous section, we looked at low and medium powered MPD thrusters. At those power levels, an external field had to be applied to ensure a powerful enough magnetic field is applied to the plasma to generate the Lorentz force. Even though it wasn’t enough to impart enough thrust, there was always a self field contribution, albeit a weak, almost negligible one. The cause of the self field contribution is the induction of a magnetic field around the arc due to the current carried. You can get an idea of the direction of a magnetic field with the “right fist rule” by closing your right fist around the generating current, with your thumb pointing towards the cathode. Your fingers will then curl in the direction of the magnetic field. To get the direction of the Lorentz force, all you have to do in the next step is aligning your right hand again. This time, your thumb has to point in the direction of the magnetic field, and – at right angle – your index finger into the direction of the current. At right angle to both fingers, the middle finger will point in the direction of the Lorentz-force. (Note that you can also use the latter three-fingers-rule to study the acceleration in AF-MPD thrusters.)

The strength of the induced self field will depend on the current. The stronger the current is, the stronger the magnetic field will be, and, in turn, the Lorentz acceleration. As a consequence, given a sufficient current, the self field will be effective enough to provide for a decent Lorentz acceleration.

The current depends on the available electric power put into the arc generator, making the applied field obsolete from certain power levels up. This reduces complications arising from using an external magnet, and provides good efficiencies and attractive performance parameters. For example, at 300 kWe, and with an arc current of almost 5 kA (compare to AF-MPDs currents ranging from 50 A to 2 kA) DT2, an SF-MPD thruster developed at the Institute of Space Systems in Stuttgart, can provide a thrust of approximately 10 N at an exhaust velocity of 12 km/s, with a thrust efficiency of 20%. The performance possibilities have many people considering the technology as a key technology for rapid, man rated interplanetary transport, in particular to Mars. In this use case, SF-MPD thrusters may even be competitive with VASIMR, weighing possible shortcomings in efficiency up with a significantly simpler construction and, hence, much smaller cost. However, lacking current astronuclear sources of sufficient power, the development is stagnant, and awaiting disruption on the power source side.

DT-2 Plume Argon

DT 2 in operation at the Institute of space systems, Stuttgart.

 

MPD Cutaway high res loose pin

Simplified model of DT 2. ISS USTUTT design, image BeyondNERVA

Another example of a “typical” self-field high powered MPD thruster application (since, like all types of electric propulsion, the amount of power applied to the thruster defines the operational parameters) is that seen in the PEGASUS drive, an electric propulsion system developed for the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) for an electric propulsion mission to Mars. Committed research on this concept began in the mid-1980s, and was meant for a mission in the late-1990s to early 2000s, but funding for SEI was canceled, and the development has been on hold  ever since. Perhaps the most notable is the shape, which is fairly typical of nozzles designed for a concept we discussed briefly earlier in the post: the sinuous curvature of the nozzle profile is designed to minimize the amount of thermal heating that occurs within the plasma, so if a nozzle has this shape it means that the thermal contribution to the thrust is not only not needed, but is detrimental to the performance of the thruster.

 

Thruster Components

PEGASUS drive system schematic, Coomes et al 1993

 

A number of novel technologies were used in this design, and as such we’ll look at it again a couple of times during this series: first for the thruster, then for its power conversion system, and finally for its heat rejection system.

Nozzle xsection

PEGASUS MPD Thruster, Coomes et al

Pulsed Inductive Thrusters

Pulsed inductive thrusters (PIT) are a type of thruster that has many advantages over other MPD thrusters. The thrusters don’t need an electrode, which is one of the major causes of wear in most thrusters, and they also are able to maintain their specific impulse over a wide range of power levels. This is because the thruster isn’t a steady-state thruster, like many other forms of thruster that are commonly in use; instead a gaseous propellant is sprayed in brief jets onto a flat induction coil, which is then discharged for a very brief period from a bank of capacitors (usually in the nanosecond range), causing the gas to become ionized and then accelerated through the Lorentz force. The frequency of pulses is dependent on the time it takes to charge the capacitors, so the more power that is available, the faster the pulses can be discharged. This directly affects the amount of thrust that’s available from the thruster, but since the discharges and volume of gas are all the same, the Lorentz force applied – and therefore the exhaust velocity of the propellant and the isp – remain the same. Another advantage of the inductive plasma generation is the wide variety of propellants available, from water to ammonia to hydrazine, making it attractive for possible in-situ propellant use with minimal processing. In fact, one proposal by Kurt Polzin at Marshall SFC uses the Martian atmosphere for propellant, making refueling a Mars-bound interplanetary spacecraft a much easier proposition.

PIT Schematic, NuPIT

Schematic of PIT operation. Image on left is gas flow, image on right is magnetic fields. Frisbee, 2005

This gives a lot of flexibility to the system, especially for interplanetary missions, because additional thrust has distinct advantages when escaping a gravity well (such as Earth orbit), or orbital capture, but isn’t necessary for the “cruise” phase of interplanetary missions. Another nice thing about it is, for missions that are power-constrained, many thruster types have variation in specific impulse, and therefore the amount of propellant needed for the mission, depending on the amount of power available for propulsion when combined with other electricity requirements, like sensors and communications. For the PIT, this just means less thrust per unit time, while the isp remains the same. This isn’t necessarily a major advantage in all mission types, but for some it could be a significant draw.

PIT was one of the proposed propulsion types for Project Prometheus (which ended up using the HiPEP system that we’ll discuss in the next blog post), known as NuPIT. This thruster offered thrust efficiency of greater than 70%, and an isp of between 2,000-9,000 seconds, depending on the specific design that was decided upon (the isp would remain constant for whatever value was selected), using a 200 kWe nuclear power plant (which is on the lower end of what a crewed NEP mission would use), with ammonia propellant. Other propellants could have been selected, but they would have affected the performance of the thruster in different ways. An advantage to the PIT, though, is that its breadth of propellant options are far wider than most other thruster types, even thermal rockets, because if there’s chemical dissociation (which occurs to a certain degree in most propellants), anything that would become a solid doesn’t really have a surface to deposit onto effectively, and what little residue builds up is on a flat surface that doesn’t rely on thermal conductance or orifice size for its’ functionality, it’s just a plate to hold the inductive coil.

NuPIT Characteristics, Frisbee 2003

NuPIT pulsed inductive thruster characteristics, Frisbee 2005

For a “live off the land” approach to propellant, PIT thrusters offer many advantages in their flexibility (assuming replacement of the gaseous diffuser used for the gas pulses), predictable (and fairly high) specific impulse, and variable thrust. This makes them incredibly attractive for many mission types. As higher powered electrical systems become available, they may become a popular option for many mission applications.

This page will continue to be updated and expanded as time and information allows!

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Sources

Steady State MPD

Magnetic Nozzle Design for High-Power MPD Thrusters, Hoyt Tethers, Unlimited 2005 http://www.tethers.com/papers/IEPC05_HoytNozzlePaper.pdf

Applied Field MPD

Applied-Field MPD Thruster Geometry Effects, Myers Sverdup 1991 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19910017903.pdf

Performance of an Applied Field MPD Thruster, Paganucci et al 2001 http://erps.spacegrant.org/uploads/images/images/iepc_articledownload_1988-2007/2001index/2002iepc/papers/t12/132_2.pdf

Mayer, T., Gabrielli, R. A., Boxberger, A., Herdrich, G., and Petkow, D.,: “Development of Analytical Scaling Models for Applied Field Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters,” 64th International  Astronautical Congress, International Astronautical Federation, Beijing, September 2013.

Myers, R. M., “Geometric Scaling of Applied-Field Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters,” Journal of Propulsion and Power, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1995, pages 343–350.

Tikhonov, V. B., Semenikhin S. A., Brophy J.R., and Polk J.E., “Performance of 130 kW MPD Thruster with an External Magnetic Field and Li as a Propellant”, International Electric Propulsion Conference, IEPC 97-117, Cleveland, Ohio, 1997, pp. 728-733.

Boxberger, A., et al.. “Experimental Investigation of Steady-State Applied-Field Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters at Institute of Space Systems”, 48th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference & Exhibit, Atlanta, Georgia, 2012.

Boxberger, A., and G. Herdrich. “Integral Measurements of 100 kW Class Steady State Applied-Field Magnetoplasmadynamic Thruster SX3 and Perspectives of AF-MPD Technology.” 35th International Electric Propulsion Conference. 2017.

Pegasus Drive

The Pegasus Drive: A Nuclear Electric Propulsion System for the Space Exploration Initiative; Coomes and Dagle, PNL 1990 https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/6399282

A Low-Alpha Nuclear Electric Propulsion System for Lunar and Mars Missions; Coomes and Dagle, PNL 1992 https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/10116111

MPD Thruster Performance Analysis Models; Gilland and Johnson NASA GRC, 2007 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20070032052.pdf

Self-Field MPD

On the Thrust of Self-Field MPD Thrusters, Choueiri 1997 https://alfven.princeton.edu/publications/choueiri-iepc-1997-121

Pulsed Inductive Thruster (PIT)

The PIT Mark V Pulsed Inductive Thruster, Dailey et al 1993 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19930023164.pdf

The Nuclear Electric Pulsed Inductive Thruster (NuPIT) Mission Analysis for Prometheus, Frisbee et al 2005 https://trs.jpl.nasa.gov/bitstream/handle/2014/38357/05-1846.pdf

Pulsed Inductive Thruster Using Martian Atmosphere as Propellant, Polzin 2012 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20120015307.pdf