Hall thrusters utilize identical hollow cathode technology as ion thrusters, yet must operate at much higher mass flow rates in order to efficiently couple to the bulk plasma discharge. Higher flow rates are necessary in order to provide enough neutral collisions to transport electrons across magnetic fields so that they can reach the discharge. This higher flow rate, however, has potential life-limiting implications for the operation of the cathode.

A solution to the problem involves splitting the mass flow into the hollow cathode into two streams, the internal and external flows. The internal flow is fixed and set such that the neutral pressure in the cathode allows for a high utilization of the emitter surface area. The external flow is variable depending on the flow rate through the anode of the Hall thruster, but also has a minimum in order to suppress high-energy ion generation.

In the co-flow hollow cathode, the cathode assembly is mounted on thruster centerline, inside the inner magnetic core of the thruster. An annular gas plenum is placed at the base of the cathode and propellant is fed throughout to produce an azimuthally symmetric flow of gas that evenly expands around the cathode keeper. This configuration maximizes propellant utilization and is not subject to erosion processes.

External gas feeds have been considered in the past for ion thruster applications, but usually in the context of eliminating high energy ion production. This approach is adapted specifically for the Hall thruster and exploits the geometry of a Hall thruster to feed and focus the external flow without introducing significant new complexity to the thruster design.

This work was done by Richard R. Hofer and Dan M. Goebel of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NPO-47901

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