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American scientists have significantly improved ion rocket engines - focus on cubesats and ships for deep space

Scientists at the US Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have developed a miniature modified version of a plasma propulsion system that extends the life of the rocket and produces high power. A solution has also been proposed for better focusing of the ion torch in engines with an external discharge. All this will help create a rocket for deep space flights and increase the maneuverability of cubesats.

Image Source: Elle Starkman / Office of Communications;  Simmonds photo by Tyler Boothe.  Collage by Kiran Sudarsanan

The researchers reported a two-pronged breakthrough. First, they created a very, very small cylindrical version of the Hall engine. Secondly, they developed a new design of the so-called Hall motor with an external discharge. It is argued that the main breakthrough was the special segmented design of one of the electrodes, which is involved in the formation of the plasma torch. Development data published in Applied Physics Letters . The publication is still closed for reading.

Classical ion (plasma) rocket engines were created according to the so-called ring scheme. Over time, it turned out that it is rather difficult to reduce such motors in size if the task is to maintain their efficiency and relative power. While electronics were being measured in “cabinets”, the task of creating a miniature rocket engine, usually a thruster for orbital maneuvers, was not at stake. With the advent of cubesats, the need for such arose and is quite acute.

The modernized design of the Hall cylindrical motor ensures the stability of the plasma torch, its sufficient density and power. The same "segmented" electrode structure increased the power and improved focusing of the torch of an external discharge Hall motor when the discharge chamber was absent as a class. Plasma is generated outside the engine in an open space and does not destroy the engine walls. The improved design of an external discharge plasma engine, the developers say, is a new word in plasma rocket propulsion systems.

We add that ion or plasma engines are being actively developed in other countries, including Russia and Japan. Both miniature engines for cubesats with a capacity of several watts and engines for large interplanetary rockets with a capacity of hundreds and thousands of kilowatts are being designed. Near the Earth, equipped with miniature and durable engines, kubsats will be able to better perform tasks and de-orbit after the expiration of their service life, so as not to multiply space debris, and large and powerful engines will become a means for flights to distant objects in the solar system.

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