UC3M is investigating aerospace engines of the future
UC3M/DICYT This scientific project, underway at the UC3M Department of Bioengineering and Aerospace Engineering, focuses on the development of plasma propulsion systems. These systems use electromagnetic energy to accelerate the previously ionized propellant, in contrast to a conventional chemical rocket based on heat generated by fuel combustion.
Its operation is relatively simple. “Plasma confined in a chamber is generated through a magnetic field; then it is accelerated by applying an electric field of high potency: following that, a high speed jet is expulsed which generates a thrust capable of propelling the system,” explains Yacine Babou, who investigates this area within the framework of CONEX (CONnecting EXcellence), a UC3M talent recruitment program, supported by the European Union(7FP Marie Curie actions),the Spanish Ministry of the Economy and Competitiveness, the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, and the Banco Santander.
The plasma propulsion systems are an excellent solution for propulsion in a space vacuum. Babou’s research Project CRARF (Collisional Radiative models development and validation for Aerospace Reactive Flows) is focused on the development of experimental tools and modelling that serve to characterize the plasma jet produced by these thrusters and assess their performance. With these tools, their temperature and their electronic density, for example, can be better determined.
“Improved engine performance enables a significant savings in propellant, although this not the only aspect requiring substantial improvements. Improved operability, increased lifespan and system simplification are crucial features that cannot be ignored when developing dependable plasma thrusters,” the researcher explained in detail.
“Assessing the performance of a plasma propulsion prototype is a crucial task to be undertaken before it can be successfully applied in space,” the scientist pointed out. In order to carry out this task, it is necessary to have facilities capable of recreating space conditions on Earth. A few months ago, the UC3M Department of Bioengineering and Aerospace Engineering designed and inaugurated high performance facilities, consisting of a chamber and fully diagnostic equipment, capable of maintaining high vacuum conditions similar to conditions in space, where plasma thrusters are tested.
Interplanetary space trips
Some electric propulsion systems are habitually used in scientific and commercial spacecraft missions. Several space probes to asteroids and other heavenly bodies have used ionic engines, a very sophisticated and efficient technology, although complex and expensive to operate. In the 1970’s, the Soviet Union was a pioneer in the use of plasma propulsion technology and the Hall Effect, which is currently the most used plasma technology in commercial missions.
The success of electric propulsion has led space engineers to exploration of novel concepts that are more efficient, simpler to operate and more durable. “An especially promising technology is the Helicon plasma engine, which is currently being developed in my department in conjunction with the company SENER and which is one of the most relevant concepts to be implemented in interplanetary space trips,” Yacine Babou observed.