A compact, high-current, hollow cathode utilizing a lanthanum hexaboride (LaB6) thermionic electron emitter has been developed for use with high-power Hall thrusters and ion thrusters. LaB6cathodes are being investigated due to their long life, high current capabilities, and less stringent xenon purity and handling requirements compared to conventional barium oxide (BaO) dispenser cathodes. The new cathode features a much smaller diameter than previously developed versions that permit it to be mounted on axis of a Hall thruster (“internally mounted”), as opposed to the conventional side-mount position external to the outer magnetic circuit (“externally mounted”). The cathode has also been reconfigured to be capable of surviving vibrational loads during launch and is designed to solve the significant heater and materials compatibility problems associated with the use of this emitter material. This has been accomplished in a compact design with the capability of high-emission current (10 to 60 A). The compact, high-current design has a keeper diameter that allows the cathode to be mounted on the centerline of a 6-kW Hall thruster, inside the iron core of the inner electromagnetic coil.
Although designed for electric propulsion thrusters in spacecraft station-keeping, orbit transfer, and interplanetary applications, the LaB6cathodes are applicable to the plasma processing industry in applications such as optical coatings and semiconductor processing where reactive gases are used. Where current electrical propulsion thrusters with BaO emitters have limited life and need extremely clean propellant feed systems at a significant cost, these LaB6cathodes can run on the crudest-grade xenon propellant available without impact. Moreover, in a laboratory environment, LaB6cathodes reduce testing costs because they do not require extended conditioning periods under hard vacuum. Alternative rare earth emitters, such as cerium hexaboride (CeB6) can be used in this configuration with possibly an even longer emitter life.
This cathode is specifically designed to integrate on the centerline of a high-power Hall thruster, thus eliminating the asymmetries in the plasma discharge common to cathodes previously mounted externally to the thruster’s magnetic circuit. An alternative configuration for the cathode uses an external propellant feed. This diverts a fraction of the total cathode flow to an external feed, which can improve the cathode coupling efficiency at lower total mass flow rates. This can improve the overall thruster efficiency, thereby decreasing the required propellant loads for different missions. Depending on the particular mission, reductions in propellant loads can lead to mission enabling capabilities by allowing launch vehicle step-down, greater payload capability, or by extending the life of a spacecraft.
This work was done by Ronald Watkins of Columbus Technologies and Dan Goebel and Richard Hofer of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, download the Technical Support Package (free white paper) at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Mechanics/Machinery category. In accordance with Public Law 96-517, the contractor has elected to retain title to this invention. Inquiries concerning rights for its commercial use should be addressed to:
Innovative Technology Assets Management
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Refer to NPO-44923, volume and number of this NASA Tech Briefs issue, and the page number.