DISCOVERER is proud to announce the first ignition of our Inductive Plasma Thruster (IPT) has been achieved at the Institut für Raumfahrtsysteme (IRS), Universität Stuttgart. The IPT is the thruster being developed for DISCOVERER’s Atmosphere-Breathing Electric Propulsion (ABEP) system, which uses the residual atmosphere in very low Earth orbits (VLEO) as the propellant for drag compensation.
The thruster is the first of its kind, based on a RF-fed cylindrical birdcage antenna and is helicon-wave based. This provides both ionisation and acceleration, removing the requirement to have accelerating grids and, most of all, the need for a neutraliser, as both ions and electrons are accelerated together generating a quasi-neutral plume. It can run on any propellant, with the first tests run with nitrogen and with argon. Propellant flexibility, contact-less characteristics, and avoiding the need for a neutraliser are critical to cope with aggressive propellants such as atomic oxygen in the VLEO altitude range. The next steps will be the optimisation and characterisation of the thruster using advanced plasma diagnostics.