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Plasma-Surface Interactions in Hollow Cathode Discharges for Electric Propulsion


Capece, Angela Maria (2012) Plasma-Surface Interactions in Hollow Cathode Discharges for Electric Propulsion. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/7TDQ-DR81.


Electric thrusters generate high exhaust velocities and can achieve specific impulses in excess of 1000 s. The low thrust generation and high specific impulse make electric propulsion ideal for interplanetary missions, spacecraft station keeping, and orbit raising maneuvers. Consequently, these devices have been used on a variety of space missions including Deep Space 1, Dawn, and hundreds of commercial spacecraft in Earth orbit. In order to provide the required total impulses, thruster burn time can often exceed 10,000 hours, making thruster lifetime essential.

One of the main life-limiting components on ion engines is the hollow cathode, which serves as the electron source for ionization of the xenon propellant gas. Reactive contaminants such as oxygen can modify the cathode surface morphology and degrade the electron emission properties. Hollow cathodes that operate with reactive impurities in the propellant will experience higher operating temperatures, which increase evaporation of the emission materials and reduce cathode life. A deeper understanding of the mechanisms initiating cathode failure will improve thruster operation, increase lifetime, and ultimately reduce cost.

A significant amount of work has been done previously to understand the effects of oxygen poisoning on vacuum cathodes; however, the xenon plasma adds complexity, and its role during cathode poisoning is not completely understood. The work presented here represents the first attempt at understanding how oxygen impurities in the xenon discharge plasma alter the emitter surface and affect operation of a 4:1:1 BaO-CaO-Al2O3 hollow cathode.

A combination of experimentation and modeling was used to investigate how oxygen impurities in the discharge plasma alter the emitter surface and reduce the electron emission capability. The experimental effort involved operating a 4:1:1 hollow cathode at various conditions with oxygen impurities in the xenon flow. Since direct measurements of the emitter surface state cannot be obtained because of the cathode geometry and high particles fluxes, measurements of the emitter temperature using a two-color pyrometer were used to determine the oxygen surface coverage and characterize the rate processes that occur during poisoning.

A model describing the material transport in the plasma discharge was developed and is used to predict the barium and oxygen fluxes to the emitter surface during cathode operation by solving the species continuity and momentum equations. The dominant ionization process for molecular oxygen in the plasma gas is resonant charge exchange with xenon ions. Barium is effectively recycled in the plasma; however, BaO and O2 are not. The model shows that the oxygen flux to the surface is not diffusion limited.

Experimental results indicate that the oxygen poisoning rate is slow and that the oxygen poisoning coverage on the emitter surface is less than 3%. A time-dependent model of the reaction kinetics of oxygen and barium at the tungsten surface was developed using the experimental results.

The experiments and kinetics model indicate that the dominant processes at the emitter surface are dissociative adsorption of O2, sputtering of the O2 precursor, and desorption of O. Ion sputtering of the weakly bound O2 precursor state limits the poisoning rate and yields low oxygen coverage. Removal of chemisorbed atomic oxygen is dominated by thermal processes. Based on the low oxygen coverage and long poisoning transients, plasma cathodes appear to be able to withstand higher oxygen concentrations than vacuum cathodes.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:cathodes; electric propulsion; plasma-surface interactions; barium; tungsten
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Engineering and Applied Science
Major Option:Aeronautics
Minor Option:Physics
Awards:Charles D. Babcock Award, 2008.
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Shepherd, Joseph E. (co-advisor)
  • Polk, James E. (co-advisor)
Group:GALCIT, Explosion Dynamics Laboratory
Thesis Committee:
  • Shepherd, Joseph E. (chair)
  • Bellan, Paul Murray
  • Giapis, Konstantinos P.
  • Goebel, Dan M.
  • Polk, James E.
Defense Date:14 May 2012
Funding AgencyGrant Number
NASA Graduate Student Researchers Fellowship ProgramUNSPECIFIED
JPL Year-Round InternshipUNSPECIFIED
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05312012-113856351
Persistent URL:
Capece, Angela Maria0000-0003-4147-7174
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:7108
Deposited By: Angela Capece
Deposited On:01 Dec 2014 18:38
Last Modified:16 Jan 2021 00:22

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