Propulsion is required for satellite motion in outer space. The displacement of a satellite in space, orbit transfer and its attitude control are the task of space propulsion, which is carried out by rocket engines. Electric propulsion uses electric energy to energize or accelerate the propellant. The electric propulsion, which uses electrical energy to accelerate propellant in the form of plasma, is known as plasma propulsion. Plasma propulsion utilizes the electric energy to first, ionize the propellant and then, deliver energy to the resulting plasma leading to plasma acceleration. Many types of plasma thrusters have been developed over last 50 years.

The variety of these devices can be divided into three main categories dependent on the mechanism of acceleration:

(i) electrothermal,

(ii) electrostatic, and

(iii) electromagnetic.

Recent trends in space exploration associate with the paradigm shift towards small and efficient satellites, or micro- and nano-satellites. A particular example of microthruster considered in this paper is the micro-cathode arc thruster (μ CAT). The μ CAT is based on vacuum arc discharge. Thrust is produced when the arc discharge erodes some of the cathode at high velocity and is accelerated out the nozzle by a Lorentz force. The thrust amount is controlled by varying the frequency of pulses with demonstrated range to date of 1–50 Hz producing thrust ranging from 1μ N to 0.05 mN.

Current Projects

  • High thrust to power ratio microthrusters
  • Discharge ignition phenomena in plasma microthrusters
  • Multi-stage micropropulsion
  • Linear-drive micro-cathode thruster