Tech Briefs

High-Efficiency Nested Hall Thrusters for Robotic Solar System Exploration

This work describes the scaling and design attributes of Nested Hall Thrusters (NHT) with extremely large operational envelopes, including a wide range of throttleability in power and specific impulse at high efficiency (>50%). NHTs have the potential to provide the game changing performance, powerprocessing capabilities, and cost effectiveness required to enable missions that cannot otherwise be accomplished. NHTs were first identified in the electric propulsion community as a path to 100-kW class thrusters for human missions. This study aimed to identify the performance capabilities NHTs can provide for NASA robotic and human missions, with an emphasis on 10-kW class thrusters well-suited for robotic exploration. A key outcome of this work has been the identification of NHTs as nearly constant-efficiency devices over large power throttling ratios, especially in direct-drive power systems. NHT systems sized for robotic solar system exploration are predicted to be capable of high-efficiency operation over nearly their entire power throttling range.

A traditional Annular Hall Thruster (AHT) consists of a single annular discharge chamber where the propellant is ionized and accelerated. In an NHT, multiple annular channels are concentrically stacked. The channels can be operated in unison or individually depending on the available power or required performance. When throttling an AHT, performance must be sacrificed since a single channel cannot satisfy the diverse design attributes needed to maintain high thrust efficiency. NHTs can satisfy these requirements by varying which channels are operated and thereby offer significant benefits in terms of thruster performance, especially under deep power throttling conditions where the efficiency of an AHT suffers since a single channel can only operate efficiently (>50%) over a narrow power throttling ratio (3:1).

Designs for 10-kW class NHTs were developed and compared with AHT systems. Power processing systems were considered using either traditional Power Processing Units (PPU) or Direct Drive Units (DDU). In a PPU-based system, power from the solar arrays is transformed from the low voltage of the arrays to the high voltage needed by the thruster. In a DDUbased system, power from the solar arrays is fed to the thruster without conversion. DDU-based systems are attractive for their simplicity since they eliminate the most complex and expensive part of the propulsion system.

The results point to the strong potential of NHTs operating with either PPUs or DDUs to benefit robotic and human missions through their unprecedented power and specific impulse throttling capabilities. NHTs coupled to traditional PPUs are predicted to offer high-efficiency (>50%) power throttling ratios 320% greater than present capabilities, while NHTs with direct-drive power systems (DDU) could exceed existing capabilities by 340%. Because the NHT-DDU approach is implicitly low-cost, NHT-DDU technology has the potential to radically reduce the cost of SEP-enabled NASA missions while simultaneously enabling unprecedented performance capability.

This work was done by Richard R. Hofer of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NPO-48400

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High-Efficiency Nested Hall Thrusters for Robotic Solar System Exploration (reference NPO-48400) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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