Improved accelerator and screen grids for an ion accelerator have been designed and tested in a continuing effort to increase the sustainable power and thrust at the high end of the accelerator throttling range. The accelerator and screen grids are undergoing development for intended use as NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) — a spacecraft thruster that would have an input-power throttling range of 1.2 to 6.9 kW. The improved accelerator and screen grids could also be incorporated into ion accelerators used in such industrial processes as ion implantation and ion milling.

A User Would Control an Automated Teller Machine through gestures. Panels on the sides of the machine would depict static and dynamic hand and arm signals recognized by the system.

NEXT is a successor to the NASA Solar Electric Propulsion Technology Application Readiness (NSTAR) thruster — a state-of-the-art ion thruster characterized by, among other things, a beam-extraction diameter of 28 cm, a span-to-gap ratio (defined as this diameter divided by the distance between the grids) of about 430, and a rated peak input power of 2.3 kW. To enable the NEXT thruster to operate at the required higher peak power, the beam extraction diameter was increased to 40 cm — almost doubling the beam-extraction area over that of NSTAR (see figure). The span-to-gap ratio was increased to 600 to enable throttling to the low end of the required input-power range.

The geometry of the apertures in the grids was selected on the basis of experience in the use of grids of similar geometry in the NSTAR thruster. Characteristics of the aperture geometry include a high open-area fraction in the screen grid to reduce discharge losses and a low open area fraction in the accelerator grid to reduce losses of electrically neutral gas atoms or molecules. The NEXT accelerator grid was made thicker than that of the NSTAR to make more material available for erosion, thereby increasing the service life and, hence, the total impulse.

The NEXT grids are made of molybdenum, which was chosen because its combination of high strength and low thermal expansion helps to minimize thermally and inertially induced deflections of the grids. A secondary reason for choosing molybdenum is the availability of a large database for this material. To keep development costs low, the NEXT grids have been fabricated by the same techniques used to fabricate the NSTAR grids. In tests, the NEXT ion optics have been found to outperform the NSTAR ion optics, as expected.

This work was done by George C. Soulas, Thomas W. Haag, and Michael J. Patterson of Glenn Research Center. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at under the Electronics/ Computers category.

Inquiries concerning rights for the commercial use of this invention should be addressed to

NASA Glenn Research Center
Commercial Technology Office
Attn: Steve Fedor
Mail Stop 4–8
21000 Brookpark Road
Cleveland, Ohio 44135.

Refer to LEW-17598-1.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2006 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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