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On the road to creating an electrodeless spacecraft propulsion engine

The universe is made up of plasma - a gas so hot that its particles are electrically charged. This makes it easily influenced by magnetic fields and forces, which can lead to complex behavior. Plasmas are found throughout the solar system in places such as planetary magnetosphere, solar wind and in the tails of comets.

Magnetic fields stretched by plasma flows, resulting in an increase in the field component along the plasma flow, can be frequently observed in space. By contrast, scientists in terrestrial laboratories often see the magnetic field decreased by the plasma due to its diamagnetism. This implies that the plasma can generate the magnetic field in the opposite direction to the one applied so the field lines diverge.

Researchers from Tohoku University have been trying to find out how the plasma flow is influenced by its environment via laboratory experiments. And in doing so, have made headway on research towards creating an electrodeless plasma thruster used to propel spacecraft.

There are many methods of propulsion used to accelerate spacecraft and artificial satellites. And while they all have their pros and cons, electric propulsion is now mature and widely used. The technology behind the electrically powered plasma thruster can deliver large thrust density without the need to expose electrodes to plasma, which cuts down on damage from erosion over time.

While nearly all spacecraft use chemical rockets for launching, once the hardware is in space, propulsion is still needed to manouvere the craft for orbital station-keeping, supply missions and space exploration. Here electric propulsion, with its higher exhaust speed, is preferred as it typically uses less propellant that than chemical rockets. Because it's difficult to make general repairs on spacecraft once they have left Earth, the reliability of their internal components is essential for long-term missions.

Some new concepts of plasma thrusters involve an expanding magnetic field called magnetic nozzle (MN), where the plasma is spontaneously accelerated to propel a spacecraft, when exhausted into space.

The MN-induced force propelling the spacecraft has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments and originates in the plasma inducing the magnetic field in the opposite direction to the one applied. This works like magnets which have their N poles facing each other: one will propel the other. In the same way, the plasma in the propulsive MN essentially diverges the magnetic field. But because the magnetic fields are closed and turned back towards the spacecraft, the plasma - influenced by the field - turns back, making the net thrust zero.

To overcome this problem, so that the plasma can be detached from the MN, a scenario in which the magnetic field lines are stretched to infinity by the plasma flow was proposed. Until now, most laboratory experiments have focused on the diverged MN rather than the stretched field.

In their laboratory at Tohoku University, Kazunori Takahashi and Akira Ando took a different approach and successfully observed the spatial transition between the two plasma states diverging and stretching the MN. Here they identified the transition when the stretch of field was detected in the downstream region of the MN, whereas the plasma state diverging the MN (i.e., thrust generation by the MN) was still maintained at the upstream region of the MN.


Fig 1: Physical picture of the applied magnetic field lines (blue lines) and the magnetic field lines (red lines) modified by the plasma flow, i.e., sum of the applied and plasma-induced magnetic fields. The plasma decreases the axial field component at the upstream side of the magnetic nozzle and increases it at the downstream side of the nozzle as described by the insets, where the transition between these two states are identified as shown by the upper left inset.

Credit: Kazunori Takahashi

This result might imply that the plasma flow can direct the magnetic field into space while maintaining the thrust generation by the MN. Although the stretch of the magnetic field has been thought to occur when the plasma flow reaches a specific velocity called the Alfven velocity, the experiment shows that it actually occurs at a slower velocity than expected.

The variation of the field strength is only a few percent of the applied magnetic field strength for now, but this is a significant first step to overcome the problem of detaching the plasma from the MN in the plasma thruster.

Furthermore, this experiment appears to provide some clues about the behavior of plasma in different environments, bridging the gap between the lab and the natural world.

Further detailed experiments on a wide range of parameters, theoretical modelling and numerical simulation are still needed.

Detailed information can be found in the paper published by Physical Review Letters.

Press release in Japanese

Publication Details:

Title: Laboratory Observation of a Plasma-Flow-State Transition from Diverging to Stretching a Magnetic Nozzle
Authors: Kazunori Takahashi and Akira Ando
Journal: Physical Review Letters


Kazunori Takahashi
Department of Electrical Engineering, Tohoku University

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