The Helicon Double Layer Thruster: the Newest Space Plasma Engine

Christine Charles

Plasma Research Laboratory, Research School of Physical Sciences & Engineering, The Australian National University

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Abstract: The Plasma Research Laboratory (Australian National University) is developing a prototype of the Helicon Double Layer Thruster (HDLT), a radically different space plasma engine for interplanetary travel (Mars) and attitude control of earth orbit satellites, in collaboration with the CRC for Satellite Systems and AUSPACE and funded by a DEST Innovation access grant. The testing campaigns will be carried out at the European Space Agency development center (ESTEC, Holland). The HLDT is based on our recent discovery of a current free electric double layer in an expanding plasma: electric double layers are like cliffs of potential (like a waterfall) and can energise charged particles falling through them. They exist in the plasma environment of the earth and the stars and can cause phenomena as diverse as aurorae (luminous draperies in the polar sky) and electromagnetic radiation from rotating neutron stars called pulsars. We have discovered such a double layer in our laboratory plasma systems and measured the energy of the highly supersonic ions it has accelerated. This ion acceleration can be used for thrust in a space craft. The fascinating part is that the double layer is not triggered by forcing two plasmas (independently generated by grids with separate potentials, much like a man-made dam) to interact, but self generates under certain parameters, much like the riverbed suddenly falling away to create a waterfall. The HDLT is simple, has no moving parts, no electrodes and no need for a neutraliser. Both the research (CHI KUNG experimental reactor) and development (HDLT prototype) efforts are being carried out in parallel by a team of scientists and Ph D students in collaboration with astrophysicists, rocket scientists, and plasma physicists around the world (USA, France, Norway, Sweden, Germany...).

PROFILE: Dr Christine Charles is Bretonne and was brought up and educated in Finistère. Her undergraduate years were spent in Rennes and she completed her Doctorate in Orleans. To escape from the British tourists she used to paddle her coracle along the beach at l'Arcouest, near Paimpol, where many French Nobel Prize winners spent their summers. Her passions are the sea, physics and music. For the last 8 years she has been at the Australian National University researching basic and applied plasma physics in parallel with completing a bachelor's degree in music specialising in jazz drums and composition. Her own compositions are a fusion of Breton celtic style with a modern jazz idiom, and a little touch of french waltz.