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Low-Power Magnetically Shielded Hall Thrusters


This dissertation presents an investigation of the applicability of magnetic shielding to low-power Hall thrusters as a means to significantly improve operational lifetime. The key life-limiting factors of conventional Hall thrusters, including ion-bombardment sputter erosion of the discharge channel and high-energy electron power deposition to the channel walls, have been investigated extensively for a wide range of thruster scales. As thruster power is reduced to the “miniature” (i.e. sub-500 W) power regime, the increased surface-to-volume ratio of the discharge channel and decreased thruster component sizes promotes increased plasma-wall interactions and susceptibility to overheating, thereby reducing thruster operational lifetime and performance. Although methods for compensating for these issues have been investigated, unshielded miniature Hall thrusters are generally limited to sub-45% anode efficiencies and maximum lifetimes on the order of 1,000 h. A magnetically shielded magnetic field topology aims to maintain a low electron temperature along the channel surfaces and a plasma potential near that of the discharge voltage along the entire surface of the discharge channel along its axial length. These features result in a reduction of the kinetic energy of ions that impact the channel surfaces to near to or below the sputtering threshold, thus preventing significant ion-bombardment erosion of the discharge channel. Improved confinement of high-energy electrons is another byproduct of the field structure, aiding in the reduction of electron power deposition to the channel. Magnetic shielding has been shown to dramatically reduce plasma-wall interactions on 4 – 6 kW Hall thrusters, resulting in significant increases in projected operational lifetimes with minimal effects to thruster performance.

In an effort to explore the scalability of magnetic shielding to low-power devices, two magnetically shielded miniature Hall thrusters were designed, fabricated and tested. The performance of the first thruster, called the MaSMi 40, was characterized at an operating condition of 275 V and 325 W. A peak thrust of approximately 13 mN with a specific impulse of approximately 1,100 s at an anode efficiency of approximately 22% were measured at the nominal operating point. Observations of the near exit plasma discharge during operation, and the discharge channel after operation, suggested that the outer channel wall of the thruster was well shielded from ion bombardment while the inner channel wall appeared to be weakly shielded. Further analysis concluded that the MaSMi-40 generated a partially-magnetically shielded field topology. However, the shortcomings of the MaSMi-40's magnetic circuit design were investigated in detail and are now well understood.

The second design iteration in the development of a low-power magnetically shielded Hall thruster was the MaSMi-60. Magnetic field measurements confirmed that a symmetric and fully shielded magnetic field topology was generated by this device across a wide range of possible operating conditions. At operating powers of 160 W to nearly 750 W, the key performance metrics of the MaSMi-60 included a measured thrust ranging from approximately 8 mN to over 33 mN with anode specific impulses of up to approximately 1370 s at anode efficiencies of over 28%. Downstream plume measurements identified the primary factors contributing to the low anode efficiency. Visual observations of the discharge plasma and channel walls during and after thruster operation offered strong evidence of magnetic shielding. Erosion rates of the channel were approximated using carbon backsputter measurements; the results suggested a 10x - 100x decrease in wall erosion compared to unshielded Hall thrusters, corresponding to an equal increase in discharge channel lifetime compared to conventional miniature unshielded Hall thrusters.

The physics and behaviors of the MaSMi-60's plasma discharge upstream of and in the near-field of the thruster exit plane were investigated using Hall2De, the 2-D axisymmetric code developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the simulation of the partially ionized plasma in Hall thrusters. Simulations of the MaSMi-60 suggested that the thruster achieved the plasma properties required for effective magnetic shielding, including low electron temperatures and a near-constant plasma potential along the channel walls. This was the final piece of evidence suggesting that magnetic shielding was attained at the miniature scale. The experimentally measured performance of the MaSMi-60 was captured by the Hall2De model, offering physical explanations for the low measured anode efficiency and leading to suggestions for improving the performance in future design iterations.

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