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Improvements for Helicon Plasma Thruster Technologies


TECHNOLOGY AREA(S): Space Platforms 

OBJECTIVE: Capability to extend current component lifetimes and efficiency performance of existing electric thrusters. 

DESCRIPTION: Helicon plasma thrusters have several potential advantages compared to conventional electric propulsion devices. Future systems must be able to operate continuously for 5 years. For example, spacecraft which are designed to continuously thrust to maintain their orbit, such as a “polesitter” orbit, will need these continuous operations capabilities. Helicon thrusters are electrodeless and therefore do not have issues that devices such as Hall thrusters have that rely on cathodes that corrodes with use. Current helicon devices are experimental. They have been demonstrated in laboratory settings where space flight issues such as mass and size are secondary considerations. Magnets considered for plasma confinement range from permanent to superconducting magnets. The mass and size of these magnets, and the overall helicon device, is a primary issue which will determine their future potential for space propulsion. 

PHASE I: Provide analysis describing the physical principles limiting current helicon designs with a focus on long lived and high power electric propulsion thrusters. Investigate the relationship between thrust and mass, and thrust and size, and particularly assess the thrust to power ratio of different classes of helicon plasma thrusters. Propose a concept to produce a thruster with the size, mass, and packaging that can fly on a spacecraft. Design and select components for a prototype for a satellite application. Provide evidence of the TRL at the beginning and the improvement in TRL after completion of a Phase II prototype. 

PHASE II: Deliver a complete design of a thruster prototype for flight opportunities, the deliverable shall be a design for a thruster prototype that can execute a test sequence over a long duration mission. The primary demonstration will be to use this deliverable to show improved size, mass, and power efficiency. It shall need to be instrumented for long duration testing. Preference shall be given to designs with form factors that are compact for space flight. 

PHASE III: The goal of Phase III is to build and fly in space the prototype thruster designed in Phase II, possibly via the DoD Space Test Program or Advanced Systems Development and Prototyping organization flight opportunities. The helicon plasma thruster technology can be used at all orbits and coupled with their long design life for in-space applications, spacecraft can use this technology to operate on their own for extended periods. Hence all systems, commercial, civil and defense can use a long-lived helicon propulsion solution. 


1. K.Takahashi, et al., “Performance improvement of a permanent magnet helicon plasma thruster”, J. Phys. D: Appl. Phys. 46 352001, 2013.; 2. D.Pavarin, “Feasibility study of medium power helicon thruster”, AIAA, 2008.; 3. C. Charles and R.W. Boswell, "Laboratory evidence of a supersonic ion beam generated by a current-free "helicon" double-layer". Phys. Plasmas 11, 1706-1714, 2006.; 4. M.A. Raadu, 'The physics of double layers and their role in astrophysics', Physics Reports 178, 25-97, 1989.

KEYWORDS: Helicon, Plasma, Continuous Burn Maneuvers, Polesitter, High Power Solar Electric Propulsion 

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