Hall thrusters tested to increase thrust for interplanetary missions.
Hall thrusters are an efficient type of electric propulsion widely used in orbit. A new study from the University of Michigan suggests that smaller Hall thrusters can generate much more thrust than previously thought, potentially making them a viable option for interplanetary missions. Benjamin Jorns, U-M associate professor of aerospace engineering, led the study which challenges the belief that a certain amount of current through a thruster area translates to how much thrust can be generated.
The team tested a 9 kilowatt Hall thruster up to 45 kilowatts, maintaining roughly 80% of its nominal efficiency. This increased the amount of force generated per unit area by almost a factor of 10. They named their thruster the H9 MUSCLE because they turned it up to a hundred. To tackle the heat problem, they cooled it with water and ran it with xenon and krypton, both conventional propellants. They achieved their maximum thrust of about 1.8 Newtons, on par with the much larger 100-kilowatt-class X3 Hall thruster.
The team hopes to pursue the cooling problem as well as challenges in developing both Hall thrusters and magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters on Earth. If Hall thrusters can run at these high powers, it could enable crewed missions to reach Mars even on the far side of the sun, travelling a distance of 250 million miles.
The study provides a promising path forward for interplanetary travel. It opens the door to the possibility of using smaller Hall thrusters for crewed missions, and further research into the cooling problem and developing thrusters on Earth could make this a reality.