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Electric space propulsion: no longer science fiction

An enabling technology for commercial and scientific spacecraft

Electric Space Propulsion

Electric space propulsion (EP) brings many advantages to space science and technology. It has the potential to enable ambitious space exploration missions, and can increase dramatically the fuel efficiency of spacecraft for orbital transfers or manoeuvres, lowering the cost of access to space by using smaller launch vehicles or increasing the capability of a given spacecraft.

Contrary to chemical thrusters, where the stored chemical energy in a propellant us used to accelerate it to high velocities to produce a thrust, in EP systems the propellant is accelerated to very much higher velocities by inputting electrical energy and utilising electrostatic or electromagnetic forces. As such, EP systems are capable of accelerating a propellant to much higher velocities than conventional systems, reducing the amount of fuel required for a given mission.

Electric propulsion in commercial telecom satellites

Electric propulsion has long been used for station keeping on commercial telecom satellites. Recently all-electric spacecraft have demonstrated commercially viability. These systems utilise the electric propulsion system for orbit-raising to the initial operation orbit, something previously performed by the upper stage of the launch vehicle. This has the potential to dramatically change the economics of commercial missions.

Electric propulsion in space exploration

Electric propulsion systems can be used as the primary propulsion system for demanding deep space exploration transfers, which would take much longer with chemical propellants. These types of primary thrusters would enable high-power (manned) interplanetary missions and cargo transfers, and provide these missions with the necessary flexibility in case of unpredictable mission uncertainties and larger launch windows. The electric propulsion subsystems can also be used for fine positioning and precise attitude control.

Southampton Astronautics Research Group capabilities

Collaboration Opportunities

Available as a development and testing service or research collaboration. The Group has expertise and capabilities for testing, qualification and consulting in electric space propulsion.

If you would like to know more please contact Dr Angelo Grubisic


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