How does an Electric Propulsion System works?

Before moving on to the science of How an Electric Propulsion System works, let us understand what it is.

An electrically powered spacecraft propulsion thrusters uses electrical, and possibly also magnetic fields, to change the velocity of a spacecraft or satellite. 


The Science behind Electric Propulsion Thrusters

Let us understand how Electric Propulsion systems work by using a simple explanation.

The gasoline car runs on a chemical fuel that is combusted inside the engine to deliver energy that makes the car’s wheels move. On a spacecraft, chemical thrusters have combustion cells where burning a fuel/oxidizer blend generates heat and pressure to create an exhaust gas that blasts out a nozzle. The exhaust plume’s equal and opposite effect (Law of Motion by Sir Isaac Newton) is the force that drives the spacecraft.


How does an Electric Propulsion System works?



Now let’s look at the electric car and how it’s similar to the Electric Propulsion thruster. The electric car gets its energy from a large, rechargeable battery that runs a motor to turn the wheels. While spacecraft do have batteries but still they use a better energy source that is the sun. Solar arrays collect solar power, and the voltage of this power is boosted and sent to an innovative Electric Propulsion thruster. A complex electromagnetic process happens inside the thruster with fuel that’s onboard (typically Xenon in current systems) to produce ions, which are sped up through an electric field to generate an exhaust plume. As with chemical systems, this exhaust plume is what propels the spacecraft in the way it demands to go.


The Cons of Electric Propulsion Thrusters

Electric Propulsion thrust is weaker than chemical thrust, so speeding up takes a lot longer. This is rooted in things like propellant mass flow rates, energy levels, and the exhaust velocities and molecular weights of the particles shooting out.


Why is Electric Propulsion better than Chemical Propulsion?

Electric thrusters use much less fuel than chemical thrusters because they have a higher exhaust rate (operate at a higher specific impulse) than chemical thrusters. Due to this limited electric power, the thrust is much weaker compared to chemical thrusters, but electric propulsion can provide a small thrust for a long time.


The End Notes

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