The helicon plasma thruster for in-Space propulsion
SENER, along with Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M), is developing a helicon plasma thruster for in-Space propulsion. It is an innovative technology for electric propulsion in which several companies and institutions are interested, including the European Space Agency (ESA), as it could be a competitive alternative to the current thruster technologies.
The helicon plasma thruster is constituted by an antenna that emits radiofrequency waves in a cylindrical chamber where a hot plasma is generated and a divergent Magnetic Nozzle, where the plasma is supersonically accelerated. This device introduces improvements with respect to available electric propulsion technologies, such as the absence of grids or electrodes which allows extending the thruster operation lifetime or the expected high thrust-to-power ratio. Equally, these thrusters can provide optimum levels of propulsion performance for certain space missions, especially onboard full electric spacecrafts; it could benefit long-term missions, such as Space missions to Mars, but also telecommunications geostationary satellites, Space Tug in Earth and Moon environments, satellites in Low Earth Orbit and Medium Earth Orbit constellations.
As an electric propulsion device, the helicon plasma thruster uses less propellant to accomplish a certain satellite mission than the one that would be required using chemical rocket engines, which allows reducing the launch cost of the satellite or, for the same price, increasing its payload capability accordingly.
SENER and the UC3M have already manufactured a prototype of the helicon plasma thruster, which was firstly ignited in 2015 at the Electric Propulsion Laboratory premises of the ESA. After this first start up, the system design has evolved and updated prototypes have been tested at the UC3M facilities. In the next months, it is planned to develop an engineering model to qualify the system before its eventual in-orbit demonstration.