Satellites orbiting the Earth must occasionally be nudged to stay on the correct path. MIT scientists are developing a new rocket that could make this and other spacecraft maneuvers much less costly, a consideration of growing importance as more private companies start working in space.
The new system, called the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster, is much smaller than other rockets of its kind and runs on gases that are much less expensive than conventional propellants. As a result, it could slash fuel consumption by 10 times that of conventional systems used for the same applications, said Oleg Batishchev, a principal research scientist in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and leader of the work.
The propulsion systems currently used for maintaining a satellite's orbit, pushing a spacecraft from one orbit to another, and otherwise maneuvering in space rely on chemical reactions that occur within the fuel, releasing energy that ultimately propels the object.
Although such systems have brought humans to the moon and are regularly used in a variety of other applications, they have limitations. For example, chemical rockets are expensive largely due to the amount of fuel they use.
As a result, engineers have been developing alternative, non-chemical rockets. In these, an external source of electrical energy is used to accelerate the propellant that provides the thrust for moving a craft through space.
Such non-chemical rockets have been successfully used by NASA and the European Space Agency in missions including NASA's Deep Space 1, which involved the flyby of a comet and asteroid.
But the field is still relatively new, and these advanced rockets are one focus of the MIT Space Propulsion Laboratory (SPL). "The Mini-Helicon is one exciting example of the sorts of thrusters one can devise using external electrical energy instead of the locked-in chemical energy. Others we in the SPL work on include Hall thrusters and Electrospray thrusters. This area tends to attract students with a strong physics background, because it sits at the intersection of physics and engineering, with ample room for invention," said Manuel Martinez-Sanchez, director of the SPL and a professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The Mini-Helicon is the first rocket to run on nitrogen, the most abundant gas in our atmosphere.
It was conceived through work with former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz ScD '77 on a much larger, more powerful system developed by Chang-Diaz. Batishchev's team did a theoretical analysis showing that the first of three parts of the larger rocket could potentially be used alone for different applications.
The idea "was that a rocket based on the first stage [of Chang-Diaz's system] could be small and simple, for more economical applications," said Batishchev, who noted that the team's prototype would fit in a large shoe box.
Since then, 12 MIT students have worked on the Mini-Helicon, resulting in one PhD and four masters' theses to date. Batishchev notes, however, that it could be years before the technology can be used commercially, in part due to certification policies through NASA and other agencies.
The Mini-Helicon has three general parts: a quartz tube wrapped by a coiled antenna, with magnets surrounding both. The gas of interest is pumped into the quartz tube, where radio frequency power transmitted to the gas from the antenna turns the gas into a plasma, or electrically charged gas.
The magnets not only help produce the plasma, but also confine, guide, and accelerate it through the system. "The plasma beam exhausted from the tube is what gives us the thrust to propel the rocket," Batishchev said.
He noted that the exhaust velocity from the new rocket is some 10 times higher than the velocity from the average chemical rocket, so much less propellant is needed.
Work continues. Batishchev notes that last summer, for fun, his team built a plasma rocket based on a glass bottle (a stand-in for the quartz tube) and an aluminum can (the radio-frequency antenna), both of which previously held soft drinks. It worked. "This shows that this is a robust, simple design. So in principal, an even simpler design could be developed," he said.
This work was funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Elizabeth Thomson | EurekAlert!
Further reports about: > Aeronautics > Astronautics > Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster > NASA > Plasma > Space > Velocity > cheaper nudges > chemical reaction > chemical rocket > electrical energy > inexpensive gases > maneuvering in space > radio-frequency antenna > rockets > satellites > spacecraft maneuvers
ASU astrophysicist helps discover that ultrahot planets have starlike atmospheres
13.08.2018 | Arizona State University
UT-ORNL team makes first particle accelerator beam measurement in six dimensions
13.08.2018 | DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Researchers from TU Graz and their industry partners have unveiled a world first: the prototype of a robot-controlled, high-speed combined charging system (CCS) for electric vehicles that enables series charging of cars in various parking positions.
Global demand for electric vehicles is forecast to rise sharply: by 2025, the number of new vehicle registrations is expected to reach 25 million per year....
Proteins must be folded correctly to fulfill their molecular functions in cells. Molecular assistants called chaperones help proteins exploit their inbuilt folding potential and reach the correct three-dimensional structure. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry (MPIB) have demonstrated that actin, the most abundant protein in higher developed cells, does not have the inbuilt potential to fold and instead requires special assistance to fold into its active state. The chaperone TRiC uses a previously undescribed mechanism to perform actin folding. The study was recently published in the journal Cell.
Actin is the most abundant protein in highly developed cells and has diverse functions in processes like cell stabilization, cell division and muscle...
Scientists have discovered that the electrical resistance of a copper-oxide compound depends on the magnetic field in a very unusual way -- a finding that could help direct the search for materials that can perfectly conduct electricity at room temperatur
What happens when really powerful magnets--capable of producing magnetic fields nearly two million times stronger than Earth's--are applied to materials that...
The quality of materials often depends on the manufacturing process. In casting and welding, for example, the rate at which melts solidify and the resulting microstructure of the alloy is important. With metallic foams as well, it depends on exactly how the foaming process takes place. To understand these processes fully requires fast sensing capability. The fastest 3D tomographic images to date have now been achieved at the BESSY II X-ray source operated by the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin.
Dr. Francisco Garcia-Moreno and his team have designed a turntable that rotates ultra-stably about its axis at a constant rotational speed. This really depends...
If certain signaling cascades are misregulated, diseases like cancer, obesity and diabetes may occur. A mechanism recently discovered by scientists at the Leibniz- Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP) in Berlin and at the University of Geneva has a crucial influence on such signaling cascades and may be an important key for the future development of therapies against these diseases. The results of the study have just been published in the prestigious scientific journal 'Molecular Cell'.
Cell growth and cell differentiation as well as the release and efficacy of hormones such as insulin depend on the presence of lipids. Lipids are small...
08.08.2018 | Event News
27.07.2018 | Event News
25.07.2018 | Event News
14.08.2018 | Medical Engineering
14.08.2018 | Life Sciences
14.08.2018 | Life Sciences