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Current Transport and Onset-Related Phenomena in an MPD Thruster Modified by Applied Magnetic Fields


Moeller, Robert Carlos (2013) Current Transport and Onset-Related Phenomena in an MPD Thruster Modified by Applied Magnetic Fields. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/39VT-GB93.


This work investigated the effects of tailored, externally-applied magnetic fields on current transport and near-anode processes in the plasma discharge of a magnetoplasmadynamic thruster (MPDT). Electrical and plasma diagnostics were used to determine whether applied magnetic fields could mitigate the effects of the "onset" phenomena, including large-amplitude terminal voltage fluctuations and high anode fall voltages associated with unstable operation and anode erosion. A new MPDT was developed and operated with quasi-steady 1 ms pulses from 36 kW to 3.3 MW with argon propellant. Three magnetic configurations studied included self-field operation (without external electromagnets) and two applied poloidal magnetic fields. One configuration used magnetic field lines tangential to the anode lip (and intersecting the anode further upstream) and the other created a magnetic cusp intersecting the anode downstream.

The influence of the applied fields on the discharge current streamlines, current densities, and key plasma properties (electron temperature, number density, and plasma potential) was studied. Key findings included that the current pattern and current densities redistributed to follow the applied magnetic field lines. Also, the anode fall voltage was substantially reduced with both applied fields over a large range of currents (and eliminated at 8 kA). These results occurred because applied magnetic field lines intersecting the anode provided a high conductivity path and reduced the local electric field required to sustain the radial current densities. The applied fields reduced the amplitude and frequency of the terminal voltage fluctuations (up to 49%) over a broad range of currents and also decreased transients in the ion saturation current, which suggest reduction of current filamentation and surface-eroding anode spots. Additionally, the cusp field reduced mean terminal voltages over the entire range of discharge currents (up to 31%), and the tangential field lowered terminal voltages below 10.7 kA. These significant reductions in onset-related behaviors should lead to improved thruster lifetime and increased efficiency. These results suggest a distinctive and more effective approach to influencing the near-anode phenomena and mitigating the effects of onset with appropriately designed applied magnetic fields that differ from those used in the vast majority of conventional, so-called "applied-field MPD thrusters."

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:MPD; magnetoplasmadynamic; thruster; electric propulsion; plasma physics; plasma thruster; MPD thruster; spacecraft propulsion; onset
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Engineering and Applied Science
Major Option:Mechanical Engineering
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Shepherd, Joseph E. (advisor)
  • Polk, James E. (co-advisor)
Group:Explosion Dynamics Laboratory
Thesis Committee:
  • Meiron, Daniel I. (chair)
  • Shepherd, Joseph E.
  • Polk, James E.
  • Bellan, Paul Murray
  • Hunt, Melany L.
Defense Date:7 November 2012
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:01252013-171305685
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:7442
Deposited By: Robert Moeller
Deposited On:12 Feb 2013 22:20
Last Modified:16 Jan 2021 00:28

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