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Experimental Study of a Low-Voltage Pulsed Plasma Thruster for Nanosatellites

posted on 17.06.2022, 18:49 by Patrick M GreshamPatrick M Gresham

The commercial CubeSat industry has experienced explosive growth recently, and with falling  costs  and  growing  numbers  of  launch  providers,  the  trend  is  likely  to  continue.  The scientific missions CubeSats could complete are expanding, and this has resulted in a demand for reliable  high  specific  impulse  nanosatellite  propulsion  systems.  Interest  in  liquid-fed  pulsed plasma thrusters (LF-PPTs) to fulfill this role has grown lately. Prior work on a nanosatellite LF-PPT was done in the Purdue Electric Propulsion and Plasma Laboratory, but its high operational voltage and electrode size would be disadvantageous for integration on a CubeSat, which have strict volume limitations and provide only tens of Watts in power at low voltages. This work aims to address those disadvantages and further advance the development of a nanosatellite LF-PPT by reducing the operating voltage and removing long plate electrodes to prevent energy losses on components other than the expelled plasma sheet. Two major objectives are pursued: to construct a  coaxial  pulsed  plasma  thruster  operating  with  10s  to  100s  of  volts  and  to  characterize  the temporal evolution of the discharge parameters in this low-voltage operation scenario. 

It  took  three  experimental  design  iterations,  all  of  which  used  a  260  uF ,  400 V film capacitor, to arrive at a functional coaxial pulsed plasma thruster. First, a button gun was tested. It produced  a  peak  current  of ~16 kA,  which  serves  as  the  expected  maximum  for  the  later experiments. Due to the presence of parasitic arcing, it revealed that electrical lines needed to be removed from vacuum chamber to enable testing at a wide range of pressures. Second, a coaxial PPT was designed, built, and tested. This design confirmed operation at discharge voltages <100 V across the plasma, achieving one of the project’s aims, and produced a peak current of 7.4 kA. However,  necessity  to  better  align  the  cathode and  provide  an  unobstructed  camera  view  for observation of the discharge column attachment to the cathode surface forced additional system redesign. Third, a revised coaxial PPT was built and tested. Using air as a propellant, the discharge generated a peak current of 10.4 kA at a mass flow rate of 2 mgs. The PPT cathode was imaged with an ICCD camera over a wide range of pressures, and the photos indicated “spotless” diffuse arc attachment to the cathode, which serves as evidence to expect low erosion rates. The direct measurements of the cathode erosion rate are planned for future. 


Degree Type

Master of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics


Aeronautics and Astronautics

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Alexey Shashurin

Additional Committee Member 2

Timothée Pourpoint

Additional Committee Member 3

Sergey Macheret

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