My research project
Air-breathing electric propulsion
The PhD investigates electric propulsion technologies for a spacecraft in very low Earth orbit (VLEO) using upper atmospheric air as propellant. This includes experimental development of novel components for such a thruster system and computational simulations analysing thruster control for long-term orbital stability.
Air-breathing electric propulsion (ABEP) enables long duration missions at very low orbital altitudes through the use of drag compensation. A system-level spacecraft model is developed, using the interaction between thruster, intake and solar arrays, and coupled to a calculation of the drag. A quadratic solution is found for specific impulse and evaluated to identify the thruster performance required for drag-compensation at varying altitudes. An upper altitude limit around 190 km is based on a minimum thruster propellant density, resulting in required thruster performance values of 𝐼𝑠𝑝 > 3000 s and 𝑇 ∕ 𝑃 > 8 mN/kW for a realistic ABEP spacecraft. The orbit of an air-breathing spacecraft is propagated with time, which highlights the prescribed orbit eccentricity due to non-spherical gravity and therefore an increased variability in the atmospheric conditions. A thruster control law is introduced which avoids a divergent altitude behaviour by preventing thruster firings around the orbit periapsis, as well as adding robustness against atmospheric changes due to season and solar activity. Through the use of an initial frozen orbit, thruster control and an augmented 𝑇 ∕ 𝑃 , a stable long-term profile is demonstrated based on the performance data of a gridded-ion thruster tested with atmospheric propellants. An initial mean semi-major axis altitude of 200 km relative to the equatorial Earth radius, a spacecraft mass of 200 kg, 𝐼𝑠𝑝 = 5455 s and 𝑇 ∕ 𝑃 = 23 mN/kW, results in an altitude range of around 10 km at altitudes of 160–183 km during a period of medium to high solar activity.