Development of a vacuum arc thruster for nanosatellite propulsion

Lun, Jonathan (2009-03)

Thesis (MScEng (Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering))--University of Stellenbosch, 2009.


This thesis describes the development of a vacuum arc thruster (VAT) to be used as a potential low mass (< 500 g), low power (< 5–10W) propulsion system for nanosatellites. The thruster uses a high voltage capacitive circuit to initiate and power the arc process with a 400 ns high current (150–800A) pulse. A one-dimensional steady state analyticalmodel describing the cathode region of the vacuum arc was developed. The model made use of mass and energy balances at the sheath region and cathode surface respectively to predict key quantities such as thrust, ion velocity, ion-to-arc current ratio and erosion rate. Predicted results were shown to be within the limits of reported literature (∼63 μN/A, 26.12 km/s, 0.077 and 110 μg/C respectively). A sensitivity analysis of the analytical model found that a high electric field in the cathode region impedes and decelerates ion flow, which is used for thrust. This was confirmed experimentally for thrust values at arc voltages greater than 2000 V. Both direct and indirect means of measuring thrust were achieved by using a deflecting cantilever beam and an ion collector system, respectively. The transient response of the cantilever beam to impulsive thrust was analytically modeled, whilst the ion current was found by measuring the current induced on a plate subject to ion bombardment. Knowledge of the ion current density distribution was successfully used to approximate the effective normal thrust vector. Direct and indirect thrust levels were roughly 140 and 82 μN/A of average arc current, respectively. Measured thrust was found to be higher than predicted thrust due to thrust contributions fromthe ablation of Teflon insulation. The discrepancy is also due to the uncertainty in quantifying free parameters in the analytical model such as the fraction of generated ions flowing away from the cathode region. The thrust-topower ratio, specific impulse and efficiency of the vacuum arc thruster at an average arc current of 200 A was measured to be 0.6 μN/W, 160 s and 0.05 %, respectively. A thruster performance analysis and specification showed that the VAT is capable of achieving specific orbital and slew manoeuvres within a constant 5–10 W average power. It was concluded that thruster performance could be improved by using a two-stage arc circuit consisting of a high voltage, low current, short pulse trigger and a low voltage, high current, long pulse driver.

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