Aussie ‘plasma thruster’ set for blast off

Plasma thruster-powered spacecraft

The Australian plasma thruster will help satellites travel for longer and further into deep space.

A $3.1 MILLION GRANT from the Federal Government will help the Australian National University (ANU) propel Australian satellite technology and exploratory missions into the furthest reaches of deep space.

The University will partner with national and international bodies to make a revolutionary plasma thruster engine, invented and developed at ANU, ready for spaceflight. If successful, the engine could be used in satellites and deep space missions as soon as 2013.

Project leader Professor Rod Boswell, from the Plasma Research Laboratory in the ANU College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, said the engine will be based on his colleague Professor Christine Charles’ Helicon Double Layer Thruster (HDLT).

“The HDLT is the first thruster of its kind in the world and can be used to keep satellites in their desired orbit as well as in interplanetary travel,” he said. “It is an elegant, almost fuel-independent as well as energy and cost effective, propulsion system.

The future of space propulsion

Plasma thruster engines are set to be the future of all space exploration and satellite activities. They have characteristics that will eventually lead to their wide deployment as space propulsion systems.

They are much less powerful than conventional chemical rocket engines, but in principle are more efficient, for long periods of time, making them ideal for deep space missions.

HDLT apparatus with Orson Sutherland, Dr Christine Charles and Professor Rod Boswell.

HDLT apparatus with Orson Sutherland, Dr Christine Charles and Professor Rod Boswell.

In the long term, the development of plasma thruster technology will extend the range of human and robotic exploration into the Solar System and beyond.

In the short term these types of thrusters will become important to the telecommunications industry because they are ideally suited for station keeping, or keeping satellites in their orbits, for long periods of time. This will extend their operational lifetimes and save huge sums of money.

Professor Boswell added that the HDLT can also be used to de-orbit satellites that have reached the end of their missions.

“These satellites are at risk of becoming hazards for other satellites,” he said. “This is something which spacecraft manufacturers take very seriously.

“An inexpensive, light, reliable way of moving satellites at the end of their life into a graveyard orbit or into an orbit where they eventually re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up is commercially very attractive.”

Australian know-how

The grant won by Professor Boswell and his colleagues in the Plasma Research Laboratory will also help build a space simulation facility at ANU. Based at Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra, the Space Simulation Facility will incorporate a thermal/vacuum device that will enable testing of the HDLT and other satellites in space-like conditions.

The facility will also be made available to other scientists, astronomers and industry bodies seeking to develop space equipment.

The grant to ANU forms part of a $6.1 million investment in space research and education announced last Friday by Innovation Minister, Senator the Hon Kim Carr.

Adapted from information issued by ANU. Images courtesy ANU and NASA.

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