Space electric propulsion:
IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME COMING by Manuel Martinez-Sanchez
In the days when mission success was a higher priority than mission cost, electric propulsion for spacecraft was relegated to the back burner. But with today’s budget constraints, mission proposals
include EP are at a disadvantage.
The notion of using electromagnetic forces instead of chemical reactions for propulsion through space is almost as old as rocketry itself. Ernst Stuhlinger, of the Werner Von Braun team, had it more or less figured out in the 1950s1. The motivation, which is still valid today, was that the faster a rocket's jet can be made to go, the less exhaust mass is needed to impart a given impulse to the vehicle, and engineers knew that there is only so much chemical energy per unit mass that can
be converted to exhaust speed, even with exotic —and dangerous— chemicals. If external power can be brought to bear, as in particle accelera-
tors, no jet speed limit is apparent, short of the speed of light. Stuhlinger, and others later, also realized that the propellant mass savings due to the higher exhaust speed would come at a cost in power. This means that a compromise must be struck at some moderately high speed, of the order of several tens of km/s, depending on mission details. Even this is several times higher than the 4-5 km/s available chemically, and can lead to very large mass savings for ambitious space missions. Since electric power is limited onboard spacecraft, only small thrust forces can be produced, but this can be done over hundreds of days. Despite these early insights, electric propulsion (EP) was slow to reach the application stage. Design conservatism played an important part in this delay, and was the deciding factor as
Space Electric Propulsion: It’s Been a Long Time Coming