What is it about?

Satellites could use air from the upper atmosphere as fuel for a plasma thruster, allowing them to stay in a new kind of very low Earth orbit. Most thrusters would need a cathode that works on air to provide electrons for the thruster plasma, and so we have developed such a cathode based on microwaves. For the first time, we study the air plasma in the cathode and show that it supports a typical thruster running on xenon.

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Why is it important?

Air-breathing plasma propulsion would allow satellites to fly in a new type of orbit at very low altitudes, using nothing but the light of our star (for electrical power) and the air of our atmosphere (for fuel). These orbits would improve our view of the Earth and knowledge of our upper atmosphere, and they guarantee that the satellite won't be left as space debris. The hollow cathodes typically used with plasma thrusters don't work on air, so it's important to develop a new kind of cathode for an air-breathing plasma engine.


I think low-orbiting satellites - that: a) use the air around them, rather than lugging fuel from the ground, b) do not pose a risk of creating space debris, c) allow long-term observations of our planet from a new kind of orbit - will help towards a more sustainable use of space. It is my hope that this article on an air-breathing cathode aids in the development of a feasible plasma propulsion system operating on air in very-low Earth orbit. I will be excited to see the full orbital testing of such a satellite, hopefully in the near future.

Mansur Tisaev
University of Surrey

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Performance and plasma diagnostics of the Air-breathing Microwave Plasma CAThode (AMPCAT) coupled to a cylindrical Hall thruster, Journal of Applied Physics, November 2023, American Institute of Physics,
DOI: 10.1063/5.0176682.
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