The ESA backs a new phase in the development of the helicon plasma thruster from SENER and the UC3M24/10/2018 (Spain)
The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed a contract with SENER to expand development work on one of its innovations for in-Space propulsion, the helicon plasma thruster (HPT), designed as part of a joint R&D project with the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M).
Thanks to this contract, which will inject capital into the project, the HPT team, made up of professionals from SENER and UC3M, will develop an engineering model to certify the system prior to its in-flight demonstration, which could take place in 2022.
To date, SENER and the UC3M have 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 several updated prototypes have been tested at the UC3M facilities, which will be reflected in this new engineering model that SENER and the UC3M are already developing, thanks to the ESA contract.
The helicon plasma thruster is an innovative technology for electric in-Space propulsion that could be a competitive alternative to the current thruster technologies and therefore awakes the interest of several companies and institutions, including ESA.
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 has no grids, electrodes or solid nozzles, which introduces great improvements in terms of simplicity of operation and extended lifetime. At the same time, the HTP is expected to provide high thrust-to-power ratio per unit than other electric propulsion systems, like ion thrusters and Hall motors, reducing travel times.
Therefore, these kind of thrusters can provide optimum levels of propulsion performance for certain space missions, especially full electric spacecrafts. Given current trends, which are headed toward this type of vehicle, a wide range of missions could benefit from this new technology: in the short term, telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbits, as well as satellites in low-Earth orbit and constellations in medium Earth orbit. And, in the future, higher-power versions of the HPT could be used on manned missions to Mars, orbiting service platforms (like the Space Tug project) or payload vehicles between Earth and the Moon, as well as future programs to remove space debris or refuel in space.