Thruster illuminated with blue light

PEPL researchers earn AIAA Best Paper award for building and measuring performance of novel electric thruster

2021 award is fourth such honor for group in last five years.

University of Michigan Aerospace Engineering doctoral candidates Christopher Sercel, Tate Gill, and Joshua Woods and their advisor, Assistant Professor Benjamin Jorns, have won the 2021 Best Paper Award in Electric Propulsion at the AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum conference for their paper “Performance Measurements of a 5 kW-Class Rotating Magnetic Field Thruster.” 

The researchers are part of the U-M Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory

Rotating Magnetic Field (RMF) devices, which researchers have been investigating for space applications during the last decade, are a promising form of electric propulsion. An RMF thruster uses a pulsed rotating magnetic field to drive plasma currents and produce thrust. 

While RMF thrusters in principle can offer a number of advantages over more conventional types of in-space propulsion—such as high-power density and throttleability—there’s a lack of knowledge on what their baseline performance really is, according to lead author Sercel. This is because actually operating these thrusters long enough to take a measurement has proved to be a major technical obstacle to date. 

As reported in the paper, the research team addressed this issue by designing and building a 5kW-class test RMF thruster. They then made first-of-its-kind direct performance measurements of the RMF thruster over a wide range of operating conditions. 

The preliminary measurements have shown that the performance is low—well below theoretical expectations. This has not discouraged the team.  

“The importance of this work is that it gives us a starting point,” said Jorns, co-director of PEPL. “Even the best thrusters flown today started off with low performance.  We are hoping to leverage these findings now to continue to prove out this technology.  The next version is already under construction, and we have plans to test again in the new year.”

This research was funded by the NASA Space Technology Research FellowshipNASA Space Technologies Graduate Research Opportunities, the AFOSR Space Propulsion and Power Program, and an Air Force SBIR project performed in collaboration with Eagle Harbor Technologies.

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