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Electric propulsion forms platform for SPRINT success


The capabilities on offer from the University of Southampton in the area of electric propulsion have been integral to the success of several successful SPRINT projects 

Electric space propulsion brings many advantages to space science and technology. It has the potential to enable ambitious space exploration missions and can increase dramatically the fuel efficiency of spacecraft for orbital transfers or manoeuvres, lowering the cost of access to space by using smaller launch vehicles or increasing the capability of a given spacecraft. IT is now the de facto standard propulsion system used in orbit, for example electric propulsion (ion thrusters) were utilised to redeploy SpaceX satellites over Ukraine for improved communications coverage during the ongoing conflict.

Electric propulsion systems can be used as the primary propulsion system for demanding deep space exploration transfers, which would take much longer with chemical propellants. These types of primary thrusters would enable high-power (manned) interplanetary missions and cargo transfers, and provide these missions with the necessary flexibility in case of unpredictable mission uncertainties and larger launch windows. The electric propulsion subsystems can also be used for fine positioning and precise attitude control*, and in particular for orbit raising of satellites.

Leading the way in electric propulsion for space

SPRINT network partner, the University of Southampton is a pioneer in the development and testing of electric propulsion systems for space-related applications with examples of the capabilities on offer including:

  • Electric propulsion design, construction and manufacturing
  • Testing and qualification of electric propulsion thrusters and systems including thermal vacuum tests, vibration tests, thrust measurement and diagnostics
  • Subsystem design (power systems, propellant management, thrust control, diagnostics)
  • Low-thrust mission analysis for AOCS and transfer

In addition, the University’s state-of-the-art David Fearn Electric Propulsion Lab simulates space, in particular lower Earth orbit. The lab is used for testing various types of electric propulsion systems such as small to medium plasma-based thrusters for spacecraft including gridded ion thrusters and Hall thrusters, for example. The lab allows thermal vacuum testing of heating and cooling, up to about 100+ degrees Celsius and down to -50 degrees Celsius. The heating and cooling simulates the spacecraft’s environment in lower Earth orbit, in particular.

Dr Charlie Ryan, Associate Professor in Astronautics at the University of Southampton says: “With space-enabled capabilities including simulations, vacuum chambers and thermal chambers, the University of Southampton offers comprehensive facilities and expertise in electric propulsion systems across a wide variety of different electric propulsion systems.”

Dr Charlie Ryan, Associate Professor in Astronautics at the University of Southampton

University of Southampton expertise drives SPRINT project success

The capabilities on offer from the University of Southampton in the area of electric propulsion have been integral to the success of several successful SPRINT projects including Magdrive, Smallspark Space Systems, Protolaunch, Pulsar Fusion and Steamjet Space Systems.

Electric propulsion

Developing new electric plasma propulsion system for small satellites

Magdrive, a Harwell-based company, has pioneered a propulsion system for small satellites that reduces the required propellant for extended satellite lifetimes and offers the high efficiency of electric propulsion with a much higher thrust.

The firm signed up SPRINT to collaborate with the University of Southampton to test its prototype system to develop an in-space demonstration model and commercialise the new technology for the global space sector.

The University, which is a leader in the field of propulsion and engine systems engineering, shared its expertise in magneto-hydrodynamics (MHD) simulations and extended the use of its vacuum chamber to test Magdrive’s prototype thruster hardware. This accelerated the product development process by six months and reduced risks due to the access to test facilities and simulation code. In addition, Magdrive was able to develop new diagnostics and a joint space mission which took place at the end of 2021.

The University has now performed a preliminary test of a combined propulsion system using Magdrive’s Power Processing Unit (PPU) and its own thruster. These preliminary tests were successful and have enabled the partnership to identify the commercial potential of this technology.

A resulting agreement has been signed to share research capabilities in a long-term research partnership.

Low-cost Hall effect thrusters for space propulsion in smallsat constellations

Pulsar Fusion, a specialist in high-speed spacecraft propulsion and clean energy applications from nuclear fusion, has collaborated with the University of Southampton to develop an innovative low-cost Hall effect thruster (HET) for use on-board satellites in the increasing number of smallsat constellations. 

Pulsar’s thruster has been produced by using an innovative, new manufacturing process to reduce costs by approximately 70 per cent against other solutions currently available in the UK. The new HET will be used in space propulsion systems, particularly in large smallsat constellations, where low-cost components are highly sought after to enable satellite companies to deploy larger constellations at significantly reduced costs.

Creating the next generation satellite thrusters

Smallspark Space Systems, a Cardiff-based firm, designs safer engines and propulsion systems for the space sector. The business collaborated with the University of Southampton on a project to design a high-performance satellite thruster that would offer greater manoeuvrability and exploration freedom to low-mass satellites. This would create the first satellite thruster used in Low Earth Orbit or beyond, and the first ever hybrid rocket-based satellite thruster.

The engine was manufactured at the University’s Engineering, Design and Manufacturing Centre (EDMC) while test firings were carried out at its Jet Propulsion facilities. Over 30 test firings were completed, demonstrating the excellent performance and flexibility of the hybrid chemical thruster.

New CubeSat propulsion system uses water as propellant

Steamjet Space Systems develops water-based propulsion systems for CubeSats and small satellites. The company signed up to SPRINT to work with the University of Southampton to test and validate the Steamjet propulsion unit, to determine if it would be safe for launch-site operations or storage within the International Space Station, thus reducing overall mission risks. The propulsion system allows small satellites and CubeSats to stay longer in space, and can change and optimise their orbit, while operating in constellations and de-orbiting at the end of their missions.

The company drew on the University’s capabilities and utilised the David Fearn Electric Propulsion Laboratory and Thermal Vacuum Test Facility, conducted µ-VIS High Resolution X-Ray Computed Tomography (CT) and accessed both the Spacecraft Environmental Vibration Test Facility and the IRIDIS 5 High Performance Computing System.

Chemical propulsion

Using AI to optimise the design of propulsion systems

Smallspark Space Systems sought the expertise of the University of Southampton to develop its own artificial intelligence to assist in the design of its novel combustion chamber architecture.

The project combined Smallspark’s engine design capabilities and the mathematical expertise of the University of Southampton’s Operational Research group. This enabled the firm to develop tools which could be used in designing and optimising the next generation of low-cost, ecologically safe, rapid response rocket engines for the MoD, and those seeking to maintain telecom constellations.

Smallspark also used its new software capabilities to design various other launch systems, while working with industry partners to assist in improving the cost and efficiency of their aerosystems.

Honing propulsion technology for small payloads

Protolaunch is another Harwell-based business which specialises in propulsion technology for launch vehicle applications. The firm signed up to SPRINT to work with the Astronautics group at the University of Southampton, which provided its expertise and facilities to validate the Protolaunch engine cycle and support the development of a hardware prototype, developing engines suitable for launch vehicles and upper stage engines.

Cold-flow tests of the engine were conducted at the University’s Graham Roberts Jet Propulsion Laboratory where water was put through the system at high pressure and corresponding pressure drops were measured, along with hot-fire rocket tests which were conducted offsite at Westcott Venture Park. The latter encompassed a major hot-fire test-campaign of the 10kN HILBERT rocket engine and is now ready to work with strategic aerospace partners to qualify, bespoke, and deploy its propulsion systems into small launcher applications.

Achieving this milestone meant Protolaunch was able to successfully demonstrate the hardware’s performance which reduced time to market and accelerated product development.

The project has led to work with the ESA to assess the technology readiness of engines, and Protolaunch has secured a procurement agreement under the ESA GSTP (General Support for Technology Program). The success of the project will support the company’s future plans to grow its business, raise private investment, expand its team and build partnerships.

* Taken from an article by Dr Angelo N Grubisic PhD (Advanced Propulsion), MSc, BEng (Hons), Lecturer in Astronautics and Advanced Propulsion at the University of Southampton

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