Space Electric Propulsion

Abstract

Ion propulsion first sprang to fame in Star Treck in the late 1960s.  Star Treck has an impressive record of heralding emerging technologies and some 3 decades later space electric (or Ion) propulsion is now a reality.  Although terrestrial ion engine development and testing has been growing since the early 1980s, only recently has the technology been applied to actual space missions.  However, the number of different applications is now expanding rapidly as space electric propulsion is proving a key enabling technology for many space programmes.

The talk looks at the reasons for using space electric propulsion and explains how an ion engine works.  It then reviews the current range of applications, taking examples of recent, current and future programmes.  It also takes a brief look ahead into the future of nuclear electric propulsion.  One of the most spectacular aspects is the range of applications, from much sought after cost savings in commercial satellites to the key enabling technology in explorer and science missions.  Over the next decade, space electric propulsion is likely to be one of the most significant developments and very much a technology whose time has come.

In the time available, the objective is to give an overview of the range and scope of development in the field of space electric propulsion and focuses on the larger engines.  There is also a growing development in smaller devices for niche applications which are mentioned if not addressed in detail.