What is a Pulsed Plasma Thruster?

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Jul 29, 2022

A Pulsed Plasma Thruster (PPT) is the simplest form of electric propulsion that uses the natural properties of plasma to produce thrust and high velocities with low fuel consumption. Compared to other forms of electric propulsion a PPT usually operates by creating a pulsed, high current discharge across the exposed surface of a solid insulator that gradually removes the material from the surface thereby providing a propellant that is ionized, heated, and accelerated to high speed. 

It is also known as a Plasma Jet Engine which is a high-specific impulse and low-power electric thruster. The Pulsed Plasma thruster was also one of the first forms of electric propulsion technology to fly in space.

The PPT consists of two electrodes that are placed close to the propellant source. The thruster supply is used to charge an energy storage unit or a capacitor to a high voltage which is placed in parallel with the electrodes. The operation of the thruster begins with the thruster’s igniter that is mounted close to the propellant which creates a spark that allows a discharge between the electrodes to create Plasma which is also known as the main discharge. The main discharge gradually removes and ionizes the solid propellant which in turn creates a propellant plasma. This Plasma is then accelerated by a force created by the interaction between the magnetic field and an electric current. As the propellant is consumed a spring forces the propellant forward thereby providing a constant fuel source.

PPTs are very robust due to their simple design and benefit from reduced fuel consumption compared to traditional chemical-based propulsion systems. PPTs using solid propellants exploit the natural properties of plasma to produce thrust and high specific impulses. Pulsed plasma thrusters are ideal for applications in small spacecraft (particularly CubeSats) for attitude control, precision spacecraft control, and low-thrust maneuvers.

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