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An ANU researcher’s revolutionary ‘plasma thruster’ will be developed for launch into space within the next four years, as part of a prototype satellite.
It will be the first time in seven years that a piece of Australian hardware will be sent into space and the first time a satellite with a plasma engine will be tested.
The European firm EADS-Astrium, the world’s largest aerospace and aeronautic company, approached Dr Christine Charles and colleagues in the Space Plasma Power and Propulsion (SP3) Group at ANU, to work in collaboration with the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey (UK) to develop the new plasma thruster prototype.
“In December 2008 we received a call from the chief technical officer of EADS-Astrium saying that he would like to investigate the development of our thruster,” explained Dr Charles.
A three-way collaboration between the SP3 Group, EADS-Astrium and the University of Surrey was formally established in March this year.
“EADS-Astrium has decided to fund the University of Surrey to produce a prototype Helicon Double layer thruster suitable for space use. For this to occur the University of Surrey requires the expertise of the SP3 group here at ANU,” said Dr Charles. “It is our thruster which will show that this type of propulsion system is suitable for space use and space missions that EADS-Astrium will fund.”
The satellite will incorporate Dr Charles’ Helicon Double Layer Thruster (HDLT), which is not only an innovative electrode-less magneto plasma thruster but the first thruster of its kind in the world which will be applied to satellite station keeping and interplanetary space travel. Launched to low earth orbit, the satellite will test the thrusting capacity of Dr Charles’ HDLT in an orbital context.
Professor Rod Boswell, a department head of the ANU Plasma Research Laboratory, said that external funding was essential to get the prototype produced as Australia does not presently have a space program.
“The ‘plasma thruster’ has come from basic research, has received some Australian Government funding, for which we have been very gratefulâ€¦ but is a result of doing the best research at the cutting edge of plasma physics.”
“It’s a coup for the Australian space community,” he said. “Someone else is going to do the hard work of getting the space craft integration going which is seriously difficult to do in Australia”.
For more information about Dr Charles’ plasma thruster: