Design of an intake and a thruster for an atmosphere-breathing electric propulsion system

F. Romano, G. Herdrich, Y.-a. Chan, N. H. Crisp, P. C. E. Roberts, B. E. A. Holmes, S. Edmondson, S. Haigh, A. Macario-rojas, V. T. A. Oiko, L. A. Sinpetru, K. Smith, J. Becedas, V. Sulliotti-linner, M. Bisgaard, S. Christensen, V. Hanessian, T. Kauffman Jensen, J. Nielsen, S. FasoulasC. Traub, D. García-almiñana, S. Rodríguez-donaire, M. Sureda, D. Kataria, B. Belkouchi, A. Conte, S. Seminari, R. Villain

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Challenging space missions include those at very low altitudes, where the atmosphere is the source of aerodynamic drag on the spacecraft, that finally defines the mission’s lifetime, unless a way to compensate for it is provided. This environment is named Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) and it is defined for \(h<{450}{\mathrm{km}}\). In addition to the spacecraft’s aerodynamic design, to extend the lifetime of such missions, an efficient propulsion system is required. One solution is Atmosphere-Breathing Electric Propulsion (ABEP), in which the propulsion system collects the atmospheric particles to be used as propellant for an electric thruster. The system could remove the requirement of carrying propellant on-board, and could also be applied to any planetary body with atmosphere, enabling new missions at low altitude ranges for longer missions’ duration. One of the objectives of the H2020 DISCOVERER project, is the development of an intake and an electrode-less plasma thruster for an ABEP system. This article describes the characteristics of intake design and the respective final designs based on simulations, providing collection efficiencies up to \(94\%\). Furthermore, the radio frequency (RF) Helicon-based plasma thruster (IPT) is hereby presented as well, while its performances are being evaluated, the IPT has been operated with single atmospheric species as propellant, and has highlighted very low input power requirement for operation at comparable mass flow rates \(P\sim {60}{\mathrm{w}}\).
Original languageEnglish
JournalCEAS Space Journal
Early online date27 May 2022
Publication statusPublished - 27 May 2022


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