Optimization of radiofrequency (RF) plasma sources for the development of space thrusters differs from other applications such as plasma processing of materials since power efficiency, propellant usage, particle acceleration or heating become driving parameters. The development of two RF (13.56 MHz) plasma sources, the high-pressure (∼1 Torr) capacitively coupled 'pocket rocket' plasma micro-thruster and the low-pressure (∼1 mTorr) inductively coupled helicon double layer thruster (HDLT), is discussed within the context of mature and emerging electric propulsion devices. The density gradient in low-pressure expanding RF plasmas creates an electric field that accelerates positive ions out of the plasma. Generally, the total potential drop is similar to that of a wall sheath allowing the plasma electrons to neutralize the ion beam. A high-pressure expansion with no applied magnetic field can result in large dissociation rates and/or a collimated beam of ions of small area and a flowing heated neutral beam ('pocket rocket'). A low-pressure expansion dominated by a magnetic field can result in the formation of electric double layers which produce a very directed neutralized beam of ions of large area (HDLT).
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Nuclear Energy and Engineering
- Condensed Matter Physics