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The University of Southampton

New Plasma and Space Technology research begins in Tony Davies HV Lab

Published: 11 April 2012

Since it was moved to its current site in 1991, the Tony Davies High Voltage Laboratory (TDHVL) has been a centre of research excellence for equipment and materials testing in the applications of power generation and transmission. However, this year sees the addition of a new research area to the Laboratory, that of space electric propulsion which uses low temperature plasmas.

The research, being led by Professor Steve Gabriel and funded by the European Space Agency, consists of two projects looking into electrical methods of propulsion for satellites outside of atmosphere. The first of these concerns the development of a breadboard for a system of 6 Pulse Plasma Thrusters (PPTs) for low weight Nano Satellites. These systems would be used to adjust the orientation and position of the orbiting devices using a solid propellant, and therefore only requiring a relatively low amount of external power to function. This presents a clear advantage over gas or liquid propellant systems (which also pressurised require storage tanks etc.), added to their qualities of being modular and easy to scale. High voltages are needed to both initiate the discharge and for the main discharge of a capacitor bank across the surface of the Teflon propellant.

The second project is involved in the development of Hollow Cathode Thrusters (shown in the image), a research area in which the University of Southampton is already world-leading. Researchers are aiming to design a working model for the devices, and consequently using the facilities at the TDHVL to help validate its results experimentally. These new Thrusters create an opportunity to design geosynchronous telecomm satellites and similar capabilities with a single, all-electric method for in-orbit propulsion and orientation, in preference to more complicated current spacecraft with two separate systems at work.

The group of researchers led by Professor Gabriel will be working on these projects in collaboration with a number of external industrial companies, including Qinetiq and a number of spin-offs from previous work within the group. The working space has now been prepared for these investigations within the Laboratory, and so work is set to begin immediately.

For more information on Plasma and Space Technology research within the Tony Davies High Voltage Laboratory, please contact Professor Steve Gabriel (email; tel. 023 8059 3222).


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