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Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters

Mariano Andrenucci

Department of Aerospace Engineering, University of Pisa, Pisa, Italy

1 Introduction

2 The Nature of the Lorentz Force

3 The Ideal Self-Field MPD Thruster

4 Real Self-Field MPD thrusters

5 The Onset Riddle

6 Applied-Field MPD Thrusters

7 Lithium Propellant MPD Thrusters

8 Survey of Major R&D Efforts



Future Prospects













The essence of what was later to become known as the magne- toplasmadynamic, or MPD, thruster, emerged from the flurry of research and development activities that characterized the field of propulsion – among others – in the feverish, post- Second World War era. Research on arc thrusters came about almost naturally from work on conventional rockets, as an alternative way to heat the propellant, as opposed to the use of the heat released by chemical reactions. Heating the work- ing gas by means of an electric arc offered the additional bonus of making it possible to adjust the power input inde- pendently of the mass flow rate. Extensive research activities were started in many public and private laboratories, which brought, in a relatively short time, to the experimentation of a wide variety of configurations and operating regimes.

Encyclopedia of Aerospace Engineering.

Edited by Richard Blockley and Wei Shyy

c 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. ISBN: 978-0-470-68665-2

It was just in the midst of one such arcjet-related activ- ity that the evidence of an acceleration mode differing from the expected conventional gasdynamic mechanism was gath-

ered, quite serendipitously, by Adriano Ducati at the Giannini Scientific Corporation of Santa Ana, California (Ducati, Giannini and Muehlberger, 1965). In the words of one of its major discoverers (Jahn, 1968), “in an empirical series of experiments with a conventional short arcjet device it was found that by drastically reducing the propellant gas


increased to values of the order of 100 000 m s 1 , and the overall efficiency reached 50%.” The ensuing supposition was that “the high current densities in the arc were generating self-magnetic fields within the chamber sufficiently intense to produce substantial electromagnetic acceleration of the flow.” The device experimentally demonstrated by Ducati (Fig- ure 1) was the MPD arc thruster with a self-induced magnetic field. This discovery led to a burgeoning of activity in plasma thruster research. The new acceleration mode was referred to with a variety of names such as the high-impulse arc, thermoionic accelerator, magnetic annular arc, and Hall arc accelerator, and it took some time for the term Magnetoplas- madynamic to become accepted as the standard name for this new class of device. This is how MPD thruster work began in the USA. Activ- ities along similar lines were sprouting up in the meantime in the former Soviet Union, and based on what would become known only decades later, the dimension of these efforts soon exceeded the levels reached in the USA and, later on, in Germany and other western countries. The main lines of the subsequent evolution of the MPD concept and the main results achieved are shortly reviewed later. First we shall focus on the concept itself and its physical bases, which

the exhaust velocity of the hydrogen flow could be


Alternative Propulsion

Anode Plasma Cold propellant inlet Uniform exhaust 1958 Cathode stream Cold propellant 1959 1960 inlet
Cold propellant
Uniform exhaust
Very high Isp core
Low Isp envelope
1961 1963
a )
( b )
(c )

Figure 1. (a) The elimination of the supersonic nozzle has been our first effort. This was a difficult idea to accept at that time; however, nozzles are gradually disappearing as one can observe in a comparison of contemporary geometries used in the adoption

of this principle; (b) uniformity of thermo-ionic vs conventional arc-jet. Adopted from Ducati, Muehlberger and Giannini (1964) c AIAA.

were for some time considered rather elusive. The discover- ers themselves noticed (Ducati, Muehlberger and Giannini, 1964): “Many questions still remain unanswered. One can call the thruster thermo-ionic, electro-thermal, J-cross-B, Hall-Current, or cyclotron resonance, or any other descriptive name, but still no one can explain completely its mechanism.” It is to the clarification of this mechanism that the next section is dedicated.


Under the physical conditions typical of high-power arc devices we can assume the working fluid to be in the state called plasma. The most important implication of this is for such a fluid to behave as an electrically conductive medium that remains quasi-neutral at all scales comparable with the size of the device or experiment of interest. This can be stated in terms of number densities of the component charges, electrons and ions, as:

|n e n i | n e n i = n


The consequences of this assumption, as well as a number of other features that are usually associated with the term plasma, are extensively covered in many excellent textbooks (Chen, 2006; Bittencourt, 1986; Lieberman and Lichtenberg, 1994; Spitzer, 1964; Mitchner and Kruger, 1992) and will not be dealt with here. MPD thrusters, as well as other types of electric thrusters such as Hall-effect thrusters, fit in a category that can be designated as plasma thrusters. This definition entails the idea that – apart from local effects such as the

sheaths – positive and negative particles never get separated throughout all phases of the acceleration process (differently from what happens in gridded ion thrusters). To analyze the nature of the MPD acceleration process, we shall start by describing the dynamical equilibrium at any point of the flowfield produced in a generic thruster microscopically. As is largely known, the analysis of the motion of an ensemble of particles is the realm of kinetic theory. The behavior of an ensemble of particles can be thor- oughly described by the kinetic equation known as Boltzmann equation. But as we are interested in the global, collective behavior of the various components of the working medium, a description in terms of average behavior of particles of any species is normally sufficient. This is usually done by taking the first three velocity moments of the Boltzmann equation, thus obtaining the mass, momentum, and energy conservation equations for each species. As we deal with a general problem of thrust generation, for the purpose of the present discussion we shall focus on the momentum equation for each of the species constituting the working medium. We shall limit our attention to a simple case that will permit us to reach some general conclusions without unnecessary complications. Let us hence adopt the following main simplifica- tions (other assumptions should become obvious from the context):

we shall assume the working medium to be com- posed of two species only: electrons and singly-charged ions; as mentioned, we shall assume the fluid to remain quasi- neutral at all times: n e n i = n;

Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters


we shall neglect viscous effects which are usually very small in typical situations of our interest; we shall neglect the momentum storing capability of the electron fluid due to the smallness of the electron mass as compared to that of the ions.

Under the above assumptions the momentum conservation equations for the ionic and the electronic components at any point of the thruster channel can be simply stated as

m i n du i dt

= n e (E + u i × B) p i + P i e

0 = −n e (E + u e × B) p e + P e i



where m i is the ion mass, n the common number density of electrons and ions, u i and u e the ion and electron fluid velocities in the laboratory frame, E and B the local electric and magnetic induction field vectors, p i and p e the ion and electron pressures, and P ie and P ei the momentum gain of the ion fluid caused by collisions with electrons and vice-versa. The term on the left in the ion equation describes the time change in momentum of the ion fluid in a frame moving with the fluid. It represents the convective derivative


dt =

t + u·


which combines the time change in momentum seen by a static observer plus the change produced as the observer moves with the fluid into a region of different momentum. The terms on the right side relate such total momentum change with the effects of the forces applied. Under the simplifying assumptions listed above, only the electromagnetic force and those associated with pressure gradients and collisions are accounted for. This is where the Lorentz force comes into play. Named after the Dutch physicist who discovered it, the Lorentz force law states that a charge q moving with velocity u in the pres- ence of an electric field E and a magnetic field B will not only feel a force qE due to the electric field but also a force q (u × B) associated with the magnetic field. Alternately, we could say that the charge will feel an overall electric field differing in magnitude and direction with respect to the field E seen by a static charge by a component u × B. This gives for both electrons and ions the expressions given in equations (2) and (3). As for the collision terms, they describe in this case only collisions between electrons and ions. The characteristics and effects of collisions between charged particles in a plasma are very different from the strong, typically inelastic, collisions

involving neutrals, in that the interaction takes place at a distance, by means of the Coulomb electric field forces sur- rounding all the nearby charged particles (glancing collisions or Coulomb collisions). It takes a large number of such glanc- ing collisions combining casually to produce effects similar to those induced by a head-on collision. This process can be described in terms of random walk, so as to define an equiva- lent collision cross section, a collision frequency, a mean free path, and so on, allowing collisions between charged particles to be described in analogy with ordinary strong collisions. To understand the nature of the Lorentz force it is not necessary to enter into the details of the collision terms. It is sufficient to recognize that under the two-fluid idealization assumed here it is simply

P i e = −P e i


so that we can cancel the collision terms between equations (2) and (3), to find

m i n du i dt

= n e (E + u i × B)

−∇p i n e (E + u e × B) − ∇p e


which, with the following further definitions


ρ d u i d t

p = ∇p e + ∇p i

ρ = m i n

= n e (u i u e ) × B − ∇p = j × B − ∇p



where the difference between electron and ion velocities has been expressed in terms of current density

j = n e (u i u e )


Thus, in equation (8) everything finally reduces to the familiar Lorentz force term j × B (apart from the pressure gradient contribution). The situation can be illustrated as shown in Figure 2. Leav- ing aside the effects of pressure gradients, the primary cause of acceleration is the electric field. Electrons are accelerated by the field but transfer all of the momentum acquired to ions through collisions. Ions, in turn, are also accelerated by the electric field and the ensuing momentum increase combines with that received from the electrons. Also evident is the fact that the increase in momentum felt by the electrons can be subdivided in a part that would be felt if the electrons where moving at the same velocity of the ions and a second part due


Alternative Propulsion

4 Alternative Propulsion Figure 2. The Lorentz force. to their differential velocity with respect to ions.

Figure 2. The Lorentz force.

to their differential velocity with respect to ions. The former part is equal and opposite to the momentum increase imparted by the electric field on ions so that when this is transmitted by the electrons to ions through collisions the two terms cancel each other. The only effect left is therefore the effect of the electric field on the electrons due to the velocity difference of electrons with respect to ions – externally seen as current – and transferred to the ions themselves (i.e., to the fluid) through collisions. By choosing to represent the electric field in a frame moving with the ions, E , we are dispensed from referring to any specific ion velocity, thus making the picture more general. To obtain further insight into the character of the accel- eration process we need to be more specific about the form of the collisional term. Assuming the electron-ion collision process to correspond to an equivalent collision frequency ν i e , in the two-fluid idealization assumed here we can write

P i e = −P e i = ν i e m e n (u e u i ) = − n e σ



where we have introduced the conductivity



n e 2

ν i e m e


Making use of equation (10), (2) and (3) can be restated as

m i n d u i dt

= n e (E + u i × B) − ∇p i n e σ




= −n e (E + u e × B) − ∇p e + n e σ


The latter can also be written as:


= σ E


u e × B +

= σ E


u i × B +




p e


e p e


1 e j × B




which can be recognized as the generalized Ohm’s law describing the relationship between fields and current in the plasma. Solving the above equation for the electric field E we obtain


E = −u i × B + n e j × B


n e p e +




where we can recognize, from right to left, the Ohmic com- ponent (last), the field-equivalent of the pressure gradient, the field associated with the electron relative motion (current) in the presence of the magnetic field (Hall term) and the field associated with the magnetic force exerted on the ions. This is the so-called self-consistent electric field expressing an equi- librium that must exist at any point of the channel between the local values of the fields and the other physical quantities. To see how effectively the momentum exchange between electron and ions can result in increasing the flow directed kinetic energy let us derive the dot product of the momentum equations for the two species, equations (8) and (9), with u i

Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters


and u e respectively:

u i ·ρ du i dt

= −∇p i ·u i +

n e E·u i n e


j·u i

0 = −∇p e ·u e n e E·u e + n e

σ j·u e



being the work of the magnetic force on the moving particles of course equal to zero. The last term in equation (17) can now be decomposed by use of equation (9). With obvious further passages we obtain


d t ρ u 2



= −∇p i ·u i + n e E·u i

0 = −∇p e ·u e n e E·u e +

n e


n e σ j·u i

j·u i j 2




where the dashed boxes now highlight the collisional terms describing the frictional power exchange between electrons and ions associated with the collisional friction force density. Not surprisingly, the rate at which directed energy is acquired by the electrons due to collisions with the ions is simply minus the rate at which energy is acquired by the ions due to collisions with the electrons. But the electron energy change includes another term, j 2 , which represents the conversion of the ordered motion of the electrons, relative to the ions, into random motion (i.e., heat) via collisions with the ions. Note that this term is positive definite, indicating that the randomization of the electron ordered motion gives rise to irreversible heat generation. This is the term usually called ohmic or Joule heating term. Adding up equations (18) and (19) and remembering equa- tion (9) the collisional terms cancel out, and we are left with


d t ρ u 2




= −∇p i ·u i − ∇p e ·u e + E·j j σ


If we want to make the role of the Lorentz force in equation (20) more explicit, we can go back to equation (15), and scalarly multiply with j, thus obtaining

E·j = − (u i × B) ·j

Considering that it is




p e ·j + j 2


(u i × B) ·j = (j × B) ·u i



we can write


E·j j σ


(j × B) ·u i


n p e ·j


= (j × B) ·u i − ∇p e · (u i u e )


so that equation (20) can be finally put in the form

d t ρ u 2



= −∇p·u + (j × B) ·u


where u u i is the mass-averaged plasma velocity. Equation (24) could also be obtained directly from equation (8) by

scalar multiplication with u.

The above analysis shows that the acceleration mechanism based on the Lorentz force is inherently dissipative in that it is based on a collisional momentum transfer between elec-

trons and ions that inherently entails frictional dissipation. In this regard MPD thrusters are necessarily less efficient than thrusters in which the acceleration of the ions is obtained from electrostatic forces, and hence conservatively (apart from other real-life loss mechanisms). The above analysis, as noted before, described the equilibrium at a generic point of the acceleration channel of a generic thruster. To correlate this with the behavior of the thruster as a macroscopic device implies integrating fluid equations under appropriate bound- ary conditions expressing the operating conditions applied to the thruster. Although this could only be made on the basis of a detailed description of any specific device, some impor- tant scaling laws can be obtained that express quite general behavioral trends.


In its basic form, the MPD thruster consists of two metal electrodes separated by an insulator: a central rod-shaped cathode, and a cylindrical anode that surrounds the cathode (Figure 3). A high-current electric arc is driven between the anode and cathode so as to ionize a propellant gas to create plasma. A magnetic field is generated by the electric cur- rent returning to the power supply through the cathode. This self-induced magnetic field interacts with the electric current

flowing from the anode to the cathode (through the plasma)

to produce the electromagnetic Lorentz force that pushes the plasma out of the engine, creating thrust. MPD thrusters are usually classified either in the self-field variety, which is fully based on the pure self-field mechanism said above, or in the – generally lower-power – applied-field version, where


Alternative Propulsion

6 Alternative Propulsion Figure 3. Schematic of MPD thruster. an external coil is used to provide

Figure 3. Schematic of MPD thruster.

an external coil is used to provide additional magnetic field to help stabilize and accelerate the plasma discharge. For the moment we shall concentrate on the basic, self–field version of the concept. The basic analysis of MPD thruster operation is usually prompted by simple one-dimensional idealizations (Figure 4a). For a coaxial channel of external radius r e and internal radius r i , integration of the distributed Lorentz body-force over the discharge volume leads to the following expression for the thrust (Maecker, 1955):

T =



L J 2 =



4π ln r e



J 2


where L is the channel inductance per unit length and J is the thruster current. In a more complex channel geometry and taking into account finite cathode length and pressure effects on the cathode tip, the above expression can be generalized

with the inclusion of a corrective term as follows


= µ 0 J 2 ln r e




+ A


For instance, in the case of a conical cathode tip involving a combination of radial and axial current attachment (Figure 4b and c) one would find A = 3/4. In more realistic configurations the relationship between thrust and current squared would depend on the details of electrode geometry and current attachment; but the electro- magnetic component of the thrust would still follow a law of the type


= b J 2


with b representing a factor of a mainly geometrical char- acter. Values of b for typical geometries are about (23) × 10 7 N/A 2 . Based on the above analysis, in an ideal device the thrust would appear to depend on the discharge current only, regard- less of the propellant mass flow rate m˙ . The effective exhaust velocity v e would therefore scale with the inverse of m˙

v e =




b J 2 m˙

= b k


where we have introduced the characteristic parameter k =

J 2 /m˙ , which is reminiscent of the electrical power deposited in the channel per unit propellant mass flow-rate. As we shall see later, the importance of this parameter in characterizing an MPD device cannot be overemphasized. Equation (28) shows that, apart from the b factor, the J 2 /m˙ ratio is equiv- alent to the effective exhaust velocity; that is, to the specific

to the effective exhaust velocity; that is, to the specific Figure 4. Idealized MPD channel models:

Figure 4. Idealized MPD channel models: (a) uniform radial current; (b) radial current into conical cathode; (c) uniform axial current. Modified from Jahn (1968) c McGraw Hill.

Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters


impulse. Attempts to obtain higher I sp are therefore equiva- lent to trying to operate the thruster at larger ratios J 2 /m˙ . As will be discussed later, beyond a certain limit this turns out to be prohibitively difficult. Based on equation (28), the ideal kinetic power associated with the thrust can be written as

P T =


2 m˙ u


e =

b 2 k


J 2


so that we can define a dynamic impedance associated with the useful power spent in accelerating the fluid as

Z T = b 2 2 k


Finally, we can express the overall input power as the sum of the useful power associated with the thrust plus losses

P i = P T + P L


The power associated with losses can also be related to an equivalent impedance

Z L = P J L 2


We can therefore write a general expression for the thrust efficiency as follows

η T =





b 2 k



P T + P L


Z T + Z L


b 2 k


1 + 2Z L



+ Z L

b 2 k


An ideal MPD thruster with thrust scaling quadratically with the current would therefore obey the following laws of dependence of power and voltage with the current

P i =

b 2



J 4

V = P i




J 2˙


J 3



In conclusion, the behavioral trends of an ideal MPD thruster could be summarized as


J 2

V J 3

P J 4



Information on how real thrusters behave is obtained through experimental activities. Self-Field MPD thrusters are natu- rally relegated to high power operation, as the self-induced magnetic field is relatively week unless very high currents – of O (10 kA) – are applied. Unfortunately, steady-state testing at the MW level is difficult, and the most experimental data collected over decades in various laboratories have been gath- ered with the thruster working in the Quasi-Steady (QS) mode (Clark and Jahn, 1970). In this mode, the thruster is operated for current pulse lengths of O (1 ms), and data so obtained are expected to be representative of its steady-state perfor- mance. Unfortunately, this may appear questionable. From direct comparison of geometrically identical thrusters oper- ated in continuous mode and QS pulsed mode, Auweter-Kurtz et al. (1994) have drawn indication that results of QS thrusters cannot be plainly extrapolated to the steady operation case. Were this so, most QS results obtained in the past decades would be irrelevant to characterizing the real behavior of steady-state high-power thrusters. However, this is the data available at present and nothing better can be expected until MW level steady-state testing becomes feasible or practical. Let us return to the ideal MPD thruster model outlined in the previous section. Given its high degree of idealiza- tion, some discrepancies in the behavior of real thrusters with respect to the model presented above were of course to be expected. Several factors conspire to make the real situ- ation different and in particular: the geometrical shape of the thruster, the pattern of current flow lines and fields, various subtle aspects of ion and electron dynamics not included in the simple model, losses taking place at various levels.

Even in a simple coaxial configuration the situation would

depart from the assumed patterns of orthogonal electromag- netic fields, currents and gas flow pictured in Figure 4. Due to the Hall effect, under typical conditions existing in an MPD thruster channel and especially in the anode sheath region, the current tends to flow with a strong axial component (Fig- ure 5). In addition to complicating the current flow pattern, this also brings about a radial component of the Lorentz force resulting in a depletion of charge carriers near the anode, with detrimental effects that we shall discuss later. Another factor that complicates the picture is the back- EMF due to plasma motion through the self-field. This

voltage gradient given by the vector product of the flow veloc- ity and the magnetic field strength u × B, tends to discourage the current from flowing in the intermediate region of the channel, where both u and B are large (Figure 6). This results in a current density increase at the two ends of the electrodes with possible consequences in terms of enhanced erosion, and which can even entail a full conduction crisis in the event


Alternative Propulsion

8 Alternative Propulsion Figure 5. Conceptual illustration of current flow in an MPD thruster with Hall

Figure 5. Conceptual illustration of current flow in an MPD thruster

with Hall effect. Modified from Hoyt (2005)


the back-EMF becomes comparable to the thruster driving voltage (we shall return to this later). Such and other effects concur in making the real situation different from the idealized one. This implies, in particu- lar, that the thrust formulas presented in the previous section are inadequate to provide anything better that an order of magnitude appraisal of the expected thrust level. Various attempts have been made to work out more complex expres- sions enabling to improve the thrust prediction capability (Choueiri, 1998), but the expressions worked out seem hardly applicable to different configurations or operating regimes, so that in the end the simple expression of equation (26) remains preferable for a general use. Unfortunately, depending on the thruster operating point, other real-world effects of a more elusive and malign nature come into play to complicate the picture. This can be bet- ter illustrated by looking at the electrical characteristic; that

200 6 5 4 Mass flow rate, g s − 1 (III) 100 (II) (I)
Mass flow rate, g s − 1
Full ionization
Discharge current, A
7. Voltage-Current
Voltage, V


is, the curve describing the terminal voltage as a function of the arc current (Figure 7). Based on the ideal model, at constant mass flow rate this curve should display a cubic dependence on current. But since the earliest experiments with MPD thrusters it was shown (Boyle, Clark and Jahn, 1976) that, at lower current regimes, for all mass flow rates the voltage tends to scale linearly with the current and the exhaust velocity remains nearly constant. It is only beyond a certain point that the dependence of the thrust on the square of the current starts to be recognizable, giving the characteristic curve the expected cubic shape. Unfortunately, at yet higher currents a new unexpected deviation from the normal behavior is encountered that

deviation from the normal behavior is encountered that Figure 6. Effects of the back-EMF (a) vs.

Figure 6. Effects of the back-EMF (a) vs. idealized model (b).

Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters


Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters 9 Figure 8. Experimental V - I characteristics for typical self-field MPD thrusters

Figure 8. Experimental V -I characteristics for typical self-field MPD thrusters (a) comparison between different anode shapes; and (b) comparison between different cathode lengths. Reproduced from Andrenucci et al. (1992); see also Figure 17.

appears to be associated with the onset of a variety of disturbing phenomena, including severe fluctuations of the terminal voltage (voltage hash) and increased electrode ero- sion. Simultaneously, the anode losses tend to increase, leading to a reduced efficiency. Once this condition is reached the characteristic curve tends to revert to a linear dependence on J. This behavior, which in time became known as the onset phenomenon, or simply onset, is confirmed by a large amount of experimental data gathered in many laboratories world- wide. For example, in Figure 8 the voltage vs. current data referring to self-field MPD thruster prototypes of different configurations and operating conditions are shown. Such data were obtained in Pisa in a series of experimental activities carried out in the early 1990s (Andrenucci et al., 1992). How can we explain such deviations from the theoretical cubic dependence? As to the linear dependence observed at lower currents, experiments showed that the range over which this behavior takes place coincides with current regimes insufficient for full ionization of the propellant flow. This has prompted a physical interpretation related to the Critical Ionization Velocity (CIV) phenomenon described by Alfven´ (Alfve´ n, 1960; Choueiri, Kelly and Jahn, 1985; Turchi, 1986) according to which, as long as ionized particles move in the presence of significant amount of non-ionized particles, the maximum velocity that can be achieved by the ionized component is limited to

v ac = (2 e i /m i ) 1/2


(being i is the ionization potential of the involved species) and all of the excess power fed into the thruster goes into ionizing the remaining low-velocity neutrals rather than further accelerating the ionized fraction. Values of the crit- ical ionization velocity for various substances are shown in

100000 H 2 He N 2 Ne 10000 A Li Kr Na Xe K Cs
H 2
N 2
Alfven CIV (m s − 1 )


Figure 9. Alfven`



Atomi weight

CIV for various substances.


Figure 9. It is only after reaching the full ionization condition that the thruster starts complying with the cubic voltage law. But when the onset phenomenon starts manifesting itself the char- acteristic swerves again toward a linear dependence. This is easily interpreted as correlated with the entrainment of eroded mass adding to the discharge, possibly as a consequence of heavy erosion. Eroded mass can be expected to ablate at a rate proportional to the square of the current, so that the self-field thrust relation of equation (28) implies that exhaust velocities remain constant; and indeed velocity measurements at those regimes indicate that the exhaust velocity is independent of current. This phenomenon was first reported by Malliaris et al. (1972) at the AVCO Corporation. In the attempt to increase the current level at constant mass flow rate, they iden- tified a critical value, (J 2 /m˙ ) , above which the thruster started exhibiting a noisy voltage signal and enhanced ero-


Alternative Propulsion

sion of thruster components. They also determined (J 2 /m˙ ) to depend on propellant atomic weight as M 1/2 and to be smaller for larger values of the anode-to-cathode radius ratio. Boyle, Clark and Jahn (1976) were the first to use the term “onset.” Based on a long series of experiments with argon propel- lant carried out mostly in Princeton on the so called Full Scale Benchmark Thruster (FSBT) a lower bound for the onset cri- terion was initially estimated to be (Choueiri, Kelly and Jahn,


k = J 2 m˙

40kA 2 s g 1


Values more than 2.5 times as large for thrusters of the same type were documented in later studies. A more general onset criterion including the dependence on propellant atomic weight was proposed by Hugel¨ (1980) on the basis of different sources:

k = J 2 M m˙



(15 33)×10 10 A 2 s kg 1


This expression, graphically represented in Figure 10, is in good agreement with the previous one for argon propellant. The limit on the viable (J 2 /m˙ ) in real thrusters is a problem in many senses. First of all, as already noted, it limits the specific impulse attainable. In addition, this limit implies being confined to low efficiency operation, a prob- lem that has plagued MPD thrusters for decades hindering their introduction into flight applications. Most experimental MPD thrusters have typically exhibited efficiencies of 25– 35%, particularly at the moderate (2000 s) specific impulses

40 Babkin 20 Cory Malliaris Hügel 10 33.10 10 8 IRS 6 4 15.10 10
K* (10 10 A 2 s kg − 1 )

Atomic weight

Figure 10. Onset criterion. Reproduced with permission from Hugel¨ (1980) c DFVLR.

of interest to most near-term missions. This low thrust effi- ciency results primarily from frozen flow losses and from the power fraction deposited in the anode voltage drop that devel- ops in the vicinity of the anode surface (Gallimore, 1992; Myers and Soulas, 1992). Exceedance of this limit is typi- cally associated with increased anode losses, that for typical MPD devices can reach as much as 50 to 90% of the input power (Gallimore, Kelly and Jahn, 1993), not to mention the erosion effects which would curtail the thruster lifetime. As we shall see, frozen flow losses can be reduced by using low ionization energy propellants such as lithium. However, enabling an MPD thruster to provide the high-efficiency oper- ation needed for real mission usage will require methods to significantly reduce the fraction of power wasted in the anode. This explains why so much time and ingenuity was dedi- cated over the years in the attempt to clarify and overcome the onset problem. A brief review of these efforts is made in the following sections.


Following the work of Malliaris, contributions to the clarifi- cation of the onset phenomena came from a host of authors in the subsequent decades. A detailed review of the enor- mous body of literature that was developed on the onset over the years can be found in Uribarri (2008), Appendix D. The sections below summarize the most significant findings regarding onset phenomenology and the theories proposed to explain its nature.

5.1 Onset phenomenology

Once the onset threshold is exceeded the magnitude of the voltage noise (hash) increases slowly at first and then more conspicuously with rising (J 2 /m˙ ). At even higher currents the hash is also noted to fall again (Rudolph et al., 1978; Rudolph, 1980). The characteristic frequency of the hash has been fre- quently described as hundreds of kHz (Hugel,¨ 1973; Kuriki and Iida, 1984; Kurtz et al., 1987). The erosion of all thruster components, and in particular that of the anode, rises steadily with increasing current, not exhibiting the rise-and-fall trend of the voltage hash (Ho, 1981). Spots apparently associated with current concentration and local melting appear on the anode at discrete points. The most prominent phenomenon signaling the onset is the voltage hash. An example of voltage trace taken at different current levels is given in Figure 11. The presence of char- acteristic frequencies in the noisy voltage traces associated with the onset has been taken for granted until recently. The

Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters


Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters 11 Figure 11. The quasi-steady voltage traces for m =3gs − 1 argon, at

Figure 11. The quasi-steady voltage traces for m =3gs 1 argon, at two currents, showing the emergence of the voltage hash at higher current, and a 100 s portion of the same traces. The currents correspond to k = 26 and 123 kA 2 s g 1 , respectively. Modified from Uribarri


first author to relate anode spots to voltage oscillations was Hugel¨ (1973) who estimated the main frequency of volt- age fluctuations at approximatley 230 kHz. Similar results were documented by many other authors afterwards (Boyle, Clark and Jahn, 1976; Vainberg, Lyubimov and Smolin, 1978; Kuriki and Iida, 1984; Wagner, Kaeppeler and Auweter- Kurtz, 1998). Recently Uribarri (2008) has questioned this picture. First he has proved theoretically and experimentally (Uribarri and Choueiri, 2008) that MPD thruster voltage measurements can be affected by resonance of the electrical feeding lines; volt- age measurements should be taken as close as possible to thruster body in order to avoid corruption of the real sig- nal. In addition he has shown that power spectra of voltage measurements taken close to the thruster do not show any preferred frequency of oscillation, but reveal that the volt- age signal has the nature of a Brownian motion; that is, it is the time integration of a random signal (Figure 12). What is even more important is that voltage hash statistics are very similar for anodes made of deeply different materials (lead, copper and graphite were used), thus showing that voltage fluctuations are presumably driven by a fundamental plasma

mechanism and not by anode erosion. Thus, according to Uribarri (2008), previous detections of peculiar frequencies in the voltage hash are to be attributed to

“either a misinterpretation of the fluctuations, or of corruption such as the power supply.” As regards the thruster components erosion phenomena, starting at onset conditions all thruster components suffer from intense ablation and degradation, particularly the anode, thus reducing thruster lifetime. Anode damage, melting and discoloration, are traces of the transition taking place in the current pattern from a diffuse fashion to a spotty one. Urib- arri has shown that the severity of anode damage depends essentially on anode material, even if a general increase in

a source

on anode material, even if a general increase in a source Figure 12. Power spectrum of

Figure 12. Power spectrum of voltage signals taken on the Princeton Benchmark Thruster revealing a 1/f β trend operation at k = 69 kA 2 s g 1 , being k* 60 kA 2 s g 1 . Modified from Uribarri


damage severity is observed with increasing (J 2 /m˙ ). Indeed, lead anodes show severe damage also at (J 2 /m˙ ) values much lower than those at which intense voltage hash begins to be observed, while anodes made of graphite present no evident marks of damage also after several firings at (J 2 /m˙ ) values much greater than critical ones.

5.2 Onset theories

The majority of theories developed to explain the onset phe- nomena fall into two categories: anode starvation and plasma instabilities. These two perspectives are indeed compatible to some extent, in that starvation is often seen as a triggering mechanism for plasma instability.


Alternative Propulsion

5.2.1 Anode starvation

By anode starvation or anode crisis we mean a decrease in the density of charge carriers near the anode up to a point at which the anode can no longer collect the total current imposed by the external source. The anode starvation model argues that with increasing current levels, a condition is reached in which the current collected at the anode becomes sheath- limited. The value of the sheath-limited current is taken to correspond to the random thermal flux of electrons across the sheath. Attempts to conduct current greater than the sheath- limited current result in onset phenomena (Baksht, Moizhes and Rybakov, 1974; Korsun, 1974; Vainberg, Lyubimov and Smolin, 1978; Kurtz et al., 1987). The total current collected at the anode is given by the integration of charge carrier fluxes; that is, current densities, over its surface. At low current operation, well below k , the anode sheath is slightly electron-repelling and the local current density can be expressed as


= en v th exp eφ T e






n being the particle density in the neutral region outside the sheath, φ a the magnitude of the anode sheath potential barrier, T e the electron temperature, k B the Boltzmann constant and v th the electron average thermal velocity




8 k B T e m e


As long as the anode barrier is retarding, the current can be increased if the barrier is lowered. But once the barrier has vanished, the local current density cannot exceed the ran- dom thermal flux of electrons, usually called the electron saturation current:

j sat = en 4 v th


Trying to drive more current than that resulting from the integration of the electron saturation current density over the entire anode surface leads to a reversal in the sign of the anode sheath from negative, or electron repelling, to posi- tive, or electron attracting. If the particle density near the anode decreases, a large anode fall voltage develops because the anode potential needs to increase to the level required for ion generation. But under such conditions a diffuse anode attachment becomes impossible and the current breaks down to discrete anode spots with local anode vaporization. This transition, with all its associated detrimental phenomena,

which include various possible instabilities in addition to spot formation, is identified with the onset. The decrease of particles density near the anode, that the model indicates as the root cause for the onset, is mainly due to the Hall effect, that is, to the Lorentz-force pinching com- ponent deriving, as noted in Section 4, from the interaction of the axial component of current density with the azimuthal component of self-induced magnetic field. This also prompts the idea that any increase in the anode-adjacent particle den- sity, through propellant species or geometry changes, should delay starvation.

5.2.2 Plasma instabilities

The second great branch of theoretical models trying to explain onset phenomena is related to plasma instabilities. These theories basically state that, at critical operation, con- ditions are created in thruster channel for the development of a variety of unstable oscillation modes. One such type of instabilities most frequently evoked are the so-called drift instabilities, which are excited by large

relative velocities between electrons and ions; that is, large currents. The criterion for this instability is taken to coincide with a critical drift velocity which the electrons attain when the driven current exceeds a threshold (Shubin, 1976; Wagner, Kaeppeler and Auweter-Kurtz, 1998). Other authors have also shown that MPD thrusters are prone to the development of a variety of microinstabili- ties, among which the Bunemann instability, the generalized lower hybrid drift instability, the electron cyclotron drift instability, the ion-acoustic instability and the drift cyclotron instability (Tilley et al., 1996; Choueiri, Kelly and Jahn, 1990, 1991, 1992; Choueiri, 2001) the space charge or Pierce instability (Maurer, Kaeppeler and Richert, 1995; Wagner, Kaeppeler and Auweter-Kurtz (1998, 1998)), the Wardle instability (Di Vita et al., 2000). Actually most of such results, while not particularly enlightening about onset phenomena, seem much more useful to the explanation of a variety of anomalous transport and energy absorption effects.

5.2.3 Other onset theories

Besides the onset theories reviewed above, a number of addi- tional theories exist in the literature. In some of these theories onset is induced by back EMF. As was shown earlier (Section 4), the back electro-motive force is responsible for reducing the effective electric field seen by the plasma in the central part of the acceleration channel, and con- sequently the electrode current attachment zone. According to Lawless and Subramaniam it is possible for the acceler-

Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters


ator plasma to flow quickly enough to impede current from flowing between the electrodes; they hence hypothesize that this mechanism is at the base of the onset phenomenon (Law- less, 1987; Subramaniam and Lawless, 1987; Subramaniam,


Some of the theories developed to explain the onset have put the blame on macroscopic rather than micro- scopic instabilities. The onset of rotating disturbances in the interelectrode region and exhaust jet of an MPD arc had been experimentally observed since early studies (Larson, 1968;Allario, Jarrett Jr. and Hess, 1970). Schrade, Auweter- Kurtz and Kurtz (1985) and Schrade, Wegmann and Rosgen (1991) have suggested that onset may result from a macro- scopic instability in a current-carrying channel originating at the tip of the cathode. Joint work along similar lines was carried at Centrospazio (now Alta), Pisa, and at Consorzio RFX, Padova (Zuin et al., 2004a, 2004b). They attributed the observed oscillations in terminal voltage as well as in temperature and magnetic field measurements above certain values of total current to the inception of MHD kink instability, both in self-field and applied-field MPD thrusters. These theories are generally lacking in one way or another, in that they seem applicable to specific configurations or operating conditions rather than addressing the fundamen- tal origin of onset in the most general sense. In addition, although sometimes proving reasonably capable at predict- ing values of (J 2 /m˙ ) , none of the above theories can fully explain the appearance of the voltage hash or the spotty current attachment taking place near or beyond the onset. Sometimes, the existence of anode spots is simply assumed without attempting to explain their origin; the voltage hash is then explained as a result of the forma- tion, extinction, and movement of anode spots. The work of Diamant, Choueiri and Jahn (1998) provided useful insights along this line of thought.

More recently, Di Vita et al. (2000) and Uribarri (2008) have hypothesized that spot generation can follow from a plasma instability known as the filamentation instability, which causes the current to fragment into many channels,

irrespective of the anode material. Current filamentation is strongly reminiscent of the anode spots phenomenon, and

it has been observed in other plasma-pinch devices that

present analogies with MPD thrusters (Feugeas and Pamel, 1989;Milanese, Niedbalski and Moroso, 2007). Thus, the fil- amentation approach may represent a promising clue to the understanding of the onset.


A related technology, perhaps more amenable to near-term

application, is the so-called applied-field MPD thruster (Fig- ure 13). In this type of thruster, an external solenoid produces a field with meridional lines of force, arranged so as to diverge

in a nozzle fashion toward the exit (Krulle,¨ 1998; Auweter-

Kurtz and Kurtz, 2002). The self-induced field is often of the same order of magnitude as the field applied, so that the mag- netic field lines are twisted in a helical fashion. The strong axial component of the magnetic field hinders the electron flow to the anode forcing the current to follow trajectories far downstream of the thruster exit. The thrust fraction generated within the channel is therefore quite small and Lorentz actions mainly result here in a swirling effect. In the region where current stream lines bend to assume a more marked radial component, the Lorentz actions exhibit an azimuthal compo- nent which sustains the swirling and a meridional component which provides a blowing and a pumping contribution, both contributing directly to the thrust. The thrust in an Applied-Field MPD thruster can thus be visualized as a combination of different components:

thus be visualized as a combination of different components: Figure 13. (a) Self-field MPD thruster; (b)

Figure 13. (a) Self-field MPD thruster; (b) applied field MPD thruster.


Alternative Propulsion

the interaction of the azimuthal (Hall) component of the discharge current with the applied magnetic field yields axial and radial Lorentz forces, that can both provide a direct or indirect contribution to the thrust, T H ; the interaction between the radial component of the dis- charge current and the self-induced azimuthal magnetic field results in a thrust component T sf similar to that occur- ring in self-field MPD devices; the interaction of the radial component of the discharge current with the axial component of the magnetic field results in an azimuthal force component that causes the plasma to rotate. The energy recovered from this swirl motion can partially give rise to an axial thrust component T sw ; finally, a gasdynamic component similar to that found in arcjets, T gd is generally present.

The overall thrust produced by an applied-field MPD device can thus be expressed as

T af = T H + T sf + T sw + T gd


The azimuthal electron drift current is akin to that found in Hall thrusters, although here the collisionality is higher. Typical values of the Hall parameters in this type of thruster are about 3 to 5.5. This type of thruster therefore exhibits a behavior that is intermediate with respect to self-field MPD and Hall thrusters and may justify expectations for more effi- cient operation and a lesser sensitivity to instabilities and erosion compared to the former. Because of this, efficient operation at lower powers is easier to obtain. On the other hand, the combination of several types of effects makes the physics of this thruster more difficult to understand and to optimize. In addition, the fact that the discharge extends considerably downstream does not favor accurate vacuum chamber testing. Development has been hindered as a con- sequence. Test results obtained with noble gases have not been encouraging, while hydrogen (again, at high specific impulses) has provided levels of efficiency of over 50% (Krulle,¨ Auweter-Kurtz and Sasoh, 1998). Recent work on lithium-fed AF-MPD thrusters has yielded over 40% at only 130 kW, with Isp up to 3500 s. A critical review of the state of the art of Applied-Field MPD thrusters, with a detailed compilation of the performance levels attained by AF-MPD devices of many different types and propellants, has been performed by Kodys and Choueiri (2005).


Lithium Lorentz Force Accelerator (LiLFA) is the name adopted to designate a variety of MPD thruster that has come of age in the mid-nineties (Figure 14). Its operating prin- ciple is essentially identical to that of the self-field MPD thruster. The new designation was probably intended as a way to refresh the image of this type of device, weary with prolonged – and sometimes frustrating – development efforts. But the use of lithium vapor as a propellant, and the hollow- cathode design of the center electrode may perhaps justify the adoption of a specific name. The choice of a low-ionization energy propellant (lithium) in place of inert gas propellants as used by traditional MPD thrusters, such as argon, helium, and hydrogen reduces the power loss associated with propellant ionization, which can represent almost 50% of the total input power especially for power levels lower than 200 kW, and is therefore beneficial in terms of thrust efficiency. The use of lithium also offers addi- tional advantages in terms of reduced system complexity and storing capability. However, no space-qualified feed system exists for lithium propellant. As for the multi-channel design for the central electrode, this has been proved to improve effi- ciency and increase thruster life-time by reducing electrode erosion (Ageyev and Ostrovsky, 1993). The LiLFA concept has also been implemented in the applied-field version (AF-LFA), which aims to increase the efficiency of Lithium-fed MPD thrusters at power lev- els lower than 200 kW. With the addition of an external solenoid to enhance the magnetic field, efficient electro- magnetic acceleration can be obtained at current levels too low to induce a sufficiently large magnetic field. The AF- LFA offers the advantage higher efficiencies (40%) at lower power (<200 kW) compared to MPDT and LiLFA,

( ≥ 40%) at lower power ( < 200 kW) compared to MPDT and LiLFA, Figure

Figure 14. The lithium lorentz force accelerator.

Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters


while maintaining exhaust velocities (10–35 km s 1 ) that are comparable. Potential applications of the AF-LiLFA include missions requiring relatively high thrust-to-power ratios, such as orbit transfer, N-S stationkeeping, and drag com- pensation (Sankaran et al., 2004).


Initially investigated in the 1960s, MPD thrusters have been the objects of periodically funded research in the USA, achieving slow but significant improvements in performance. Most of the related activities were initiated and conducted for many years at the Electric Propulsion Laboratory of Prince- ton University (now EPPDyL). A multi-decade experimental activity undertaken in the early 1960s was focused on a basic model of self-field, gas-fed, coaxial, quasi-steady MPD thruster that came to be known as the benchmark thruster (Figure 15). Activities carried out in Princeton have provided most of the available knowledge on this class of device. This information has been collected and made available to the community in the form of a Quasi-steady Magnetoplasmady- namic Thruster Performance Database (Choueiri and Ziemer, 2001). Also from Princeton came fundamental insights on the involved physical phenomena, starting from the seminal work of Robert G. Jahn (1968), through the efforts of a generation of EP specialist graduated there, up to more recent contribu- tions to the clarification of the onset phenomena. Many sig- nificant examples of these are cited in the previous sections. Another huge contribution to this field since the early years of development was given by German researchers, especially from Stuttgart University. In time, the Institute of Space

Systems (IRS) group at Stuttgart performed testing activi- ties on a large class of devices, ranging from simple arcjets, to Applied-field and Self-field MPD thrusters. Steady-state MPD Arcjets were extensively studied and tested at power levels ranging from a few kilowatts to several hundred kilo- watts, providing valuable insight on the operation of this type of devices. Figures 16 and 17 show two of the thrusters tested at IRS. For the ZT3 thruster, no indication of instability could be detected up to 12700 A, where a (J 2 /m˙ ) value of more than 8 × 10 10 A 2 s kg 1 was reached, whereas for the nozzle type MPD thruster a critical value of ca 2.7 × 10 10 A 2 s kg 1 had been found, with argon propellant, with all thrusters of the DT series (Auweter-Kurtz and Kurtz, 2008). Researchers from Stuttgart also carried out extensive theoretical work on the onset problem, with important contri- butions on the anode-starvation theory and both microscopic and large-scale instabilities; some of the most relevant of these are included in the cited references. In Japan, research on MPD/QS devices became very active since the late seventies. Important contributions were given on the theoretical ground (e.g., Kuriki, Kunii and Shimizu, 1983) while R&D activities quickly achieved the space demonstration level. An MPD thruster was tested onboard the Japanese Space Flyer Unit (Figure 18) as a part of elec- tric propulsion experiment (EPEX) launched in 1995 and retrieved by space shuttle mission STS-72 in 1996 (Toki, Shimuzu and Kuriki, 1997). To date, this is the only opera- tional MPD thruster to have flown in space. A database of measured quasi-steady thruster performance has been com- piled in Japan by Sasoh and Arakawa (1992). In Italy, work on MPD thrusters was started in the eight- ies focusing on experiments on ring-anode thrusters similar to Princeton’s benchmark thruster. Test campaigns on geometry

Princeton’s benchmark thruster. Test campaigns on geometry Figure 15. The Reproduced with permission from Burton,

Figure 15. The

Reproduced with permission from Burton, Clark and Jahn (1983) c AIAA.

princeton benchmark MPD thruster: r c = 0.95 cm, r a = 5.1 cm, r ao = 9.3 cm, r ch = 6.4 cm, t a = 0.95 cm, and l c = 10 cm.


Alternative Propulsion

16 Alternative Propulsion Figure 16. Schematic and test firing of the DT2 nozzle type MPD thruster

Figure 16. Schematic and test firing of the DT2 nozzle type MPD thruster of the IRS, Stuttgart. Adopted from Auweter-Kurtz and Kurtz


IRS, Stuttgart. Adopted from Auweter-Kurtz and Kurtz (2008). Figure 17. Schematic and test firing of the

Figure 17. Schematic and test firing of the ZT3 cylindrical thruster of the IRS, Stuttgart. Adopted from Auweter-Kurtz and Kurtz (2008).

IRS, Stuttgart. Adopted from Auweter-Kurtz and Kurtz (2008). Figure 18. Integration of the EPEX experiment on

Figure 18. Integration of the EPEX experiment on the Space Flyer Unit and the MPD thruster.

and scale effects (Figure 19) were carried out with heated cathode quasi-steady MPD thrusters. Cathode heating was aimed at assessing the impact of cathode temperature on cathode phenomena, onset characteristics and performance levels of the thrusters tested. Joint work on a Hybrid Plasma Thruster - an MPD thruster with a pre-ionization chamber, windowed anode and short cathode was carried out in Pisa in

collaboration with the Moscow Aviation Institute (Tikhonov et al., 2000; Paganucci et al., 2001). Also, the Pisa group at Centrospazio/Alta and Consorzio RFX, Padova, jointly per- formed theoretical and experimental work for the study of macroscopic instabilities of the helical kink type. A huge variety of MPD thruster concepts were investigated in the then Soviet Union, starting in the late fifties (Gorshkov

Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters


Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters 17 Figure 19. Geometries of the Pisa thrusters and one of the thrusters during

Figure 19. Geometries of the Pisa thrusters and one of the thrusters during test.

et al., 2007). The scale of the efforts produced there is impos- ing and the number of contributors so large to defy any attempt to cite them here. R&D work was conducted at dif- ferent institutions, and in particular at the Keldish Research Center (Figure 20), RSC Energia and DB Fakel (Figure 21) and the Moscow Aviation Institute (Figure 22). Thrusters tested included Self-field and Applied-field devices, steady- state devices with power levels up to MW and all types of propellants, with lithium vapor providing the most efficient performance (Table 1). It was the Russians who demonstrated the advantages obtainable by the use of Lithium. Lithium-fed MPD thrusters were operated at power levels of several hundred kilowatts, with efficiencies of 45 percent and plasma exhaust veloci- ties approaching 50 000 m s 1 . Tests of up to a 500 h firing duration at 500 kW were successfully completed. A several- thousand hour life capability was projected, sufficient for most of the space missions this thruster was cenceived for.

In 1996 the RIAME/MAI team lead by Professor Viktor Tikhonov started a new investigation of Li-MPD thrusters under NASA contract to demonstrate the level of the Russian technology for further research. Laboratory model, applied- field Li-MPD thrusters with power levels of 30 kW and 200 kW were built and tested. Following this activity, facili- ties to investigate lithium-fed MPD thrusters were established in the United States at Princeton University and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Goebel et al., 2005). A 200 kW version of the lithium-fed MPD thruster called the lithium Lorentz force accelerator (Li-LFA, Figure 23) tested at the EPPDyL laboratory in Princeton, has been claimed to have achieved erosion-free operation over 500 h of steady thrust- ing at 12.5 N, 4000 s Is, and 48% effciency (Choueiri et al.,


Based on such activities, JPL started a program to develop a 500 kW Li-LFA. The conceptual design of the thruster, the 250 kW ALPHA 2 thruster, is illustrated in Figure 24.


Alternative Propulsion

18 Alternative Propulsion Figure 20. Self-field (a) and applied field (b) MPD thrusters of the Keldish

Figure 20. Self-field (a) and applied field (b) MPD thrusters of the Keldish Research Center. Reproduced with permission from Gorshkov

et al. (2007)


with permission from Gorshkov et al. (2007) c IEPC. Figure 21. Lithium thrusters tested at Energiya

Figure 21. Lithium thrusters tested at Energiya (a) and Fakel (b). Adopted from Gorshkov et al. (2007) c IEPC.

This thruster, featuring a flared anode geometry incorporat- ing Lithium heat pipes, a multichannel hollow cathode and applied-field solenoid was targeted at achieving an efficiency level in excess of 60% at I sp of 6200 s for a projected lifetime of more than 3 years (Goebel et al., 2005).


As of the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century and almost fifty years after its conception, MPD propulsion can hardly be said to have fulfilled the expectations of its inventors. This is certainly due to a variety of adverse circum- stances. Since high efficiencies (>30%) are only reached at

high power (>200 kW), MPD thrusters require power levels that are an order of magnitude higher than those typically available on current spacecraft in order to be competitive with other propulsion concepts. Therefore, research on MPD propulsion has been left aside in recent years, in favor of thrusters offering higher efficiencies at lower power levels. As a technology inherently suited for high power applica- tions, it could hardly find opportunities in the scant mission scenarios of the post-Apollo era. But apart from external factors, it must be said that this so promising concept has shown in time its own draw- backs. The factors preventing achievement of performance levels suitable for mission usage, onset in particular, have proved particularly impervious to penetrate, understand and

Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters


Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters 19 Figure 22. A 200 kW thruster tested at RIAME/MAI. Reproduced with permission from

Figure 22. A 200 kW thruster tested at RIAME/MAI. Reproduced with permission from Gorshkov et al. (2007)


Table 1. Russian experience in Li-fed MPD thrusters (Gorshkov et al. (2007)).


Power (kW)

Current (kA)

Specific Imp. (s)

Efficiency (%)

Typical Duration







5 min

NIITP design






30 min

Energiya design






30 min






500 hours

Endurance test






30–60 min

Cathode failure






30 min

Energiya design

6–9 3500–4500 40–60 30 min Energiya design Figure 23. The Li-LFA thruster tested in Princeton and

Figure 23. The Li-LFA thruster tested in Princeton and at JPL. (a): Reproduced with permission from Choueiri and Ziemer (2001) c AIAA. and (b): Goebel et al (2005).


Alternative Propulsion

20 Alternative Propulsion Figure 24. Conceptual design of the ALPHA 2 LFA thruster. Repro- duced from

Figure 24. Conceptual design of the ALPHA 2 LFA thruster. Repro- duced from Goebel et al. (2005).

circumvent, despite an impressive amount of efforts invested in this attempt. Testing is another critical issue. Steady-state testing at the megawatt level is difficult, and to date all data in the 1– 6 MW range has been taken in quasi-steady mode. So far, steady-state data is limited to less than 1 MW. The NASA- GRC test facility had the capability to operate at steady-state power level of up to 600 kW. Facilities to investigate lithium- fed MPD thrusters have been established in the United States at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Princeton University. Despite all shortcomings, the MPD thruster has proved to be the only type of electric thruster capable of processing megawatts of electrical power in a small, simple, compact device with thrust densities of the order of 10 5 N m 2 . NASA is currently researching both pulsed and continuous forms of MPD thrusters with hydrogen or lithium as a propellant. Lithium-fed thrusters in the power range of 0.5 to 1 MW would be ideal for near-term applications requiring Isp lev- els of 4000–6000 s, such as orbit transfer and Mars cargo applications. One to 5 MW lithium thrusters may be suitable to fulfill mid-term propulsion requirements, such as initial piloted Mars missions. For even higher power levels, the ter- minal voltage with lithium seems too low to process the high power levels involved; hydrogen should be capable of provid- ing the required efficiency at Isp’s of 10000–15000 s, paving the way for piloted missions to Mars and the outer planets (Polk, 2005).

In conclusion, while no present operational spacecraft employs MPD propulsion systems, ongoing and future R&D activities may result in further improvements in the per- formance and lifetime of steady-state MPD thrusters. As research continues, the efficiency of MPD thrusters will gradually increase, hopefully achieving levels compatible with the requirements of future space missions. Once higher power levels are available in space, MPD thrusters could then become the method of propulsion that carries humans to other planets in our solar system.


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Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters


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Alternative Propulsion

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