Plasma Rocket

Overview

A plasma propulsion engine is a type of electric propulsion that generates thrust from a quasi-neutral plasma. This is in contrast with ion thruster engines, which generate thrust through extracting an ion current from the plasma source, which is then accelerated to high velocities using grids/anodes. These exist in many forms (see electric propulsion). However, in the scientific literature, the term "plasma thruster" sometimes encompasses thrusters usually designated as "ion engines".

plasma thruster.jpg

A thruster during test firing

Working of Plasma Propulsion :

VASIMR.jpg

Artist rendition of VASIMR plasma engine

Plasma thrusters do not typically use high voltage grids or anodes/cathodes to accelerate the charged particles in the plasma, but rather use currents and potentials that are generated internally to accelerate the ions, resulting in a lower exhaust velocity given the lack of high accelerating voltages. The lack of high voltage grids of anodes removes a possible limiting element as a result of grid ion erosion. The plasma exhaust is 'quasi-neutral', which means that positive ions and electrons exist in equal number, which

allows simple ion-electron recombination in the exhaust to neutralize the exhaust plume, removing the need for an electron gun (hollow cathode). Such a thruster often generates the source plasma using radio frequency or microwave energy, using an external antenna. This fact, combined with the absence of hollow cathodes (which are sensitive to all but noble gases), allows the possibility of using this thruster on a variety of propellants, from argon to carbon dioxide air mixtures to astronaut urine.

Advantages of Plasma Rocket Engine :

Plasma engines have a much higher specific impulse value than most other types of rocket technology. The VASIMR thruster can be throttled for an impulse greater than 12000 s, and hall thrusters have attained ~2000 s. This is a significant improvement over the bipropellant fuels of conventional chemical rockets, which feature specific impulses ~450 s. With high impulse, plasma thrusters are capable of reaching relatively high speeds over extended periods of acceleration.

Source Credits : NASA