Ion Thrusters

In-space propulsion

In the space industry, propulsion plays a decisive role. Ion thrusters, also known as ion drives, are the dominant form of propulsion.

They are used not only as high-thrust propulsion systems that propel spacecraft to distant objects, but also as small propulsion systems used to precisely align telescopes or interferometers.

How ion thrusters work

In ion thrusters, gas particles are ionized and accelerated by electric fields. The heavier these gas particles are the higher the thrust resulting in greater propulsive power. For this reason, most applications use xenon as the propellant gas. More recently, nitrogen is also used, for cost reasons. To prevent any electrical charge building up in the spacecraft that is being propelled, the ionized gas is neutralized before it leaves the ion thruster.

Why are vacuum chambers required?
Most satellites, spectrometers and interferometers are tested as a complete unit inside a vacuum chamber. Before they can be tested, however, it is necessary to check that the drive components function properly and are durable. Since the ion thrusters emit large quantities of gas, the chamber sizes and the necessary pumping speeds need to be designed accordingly.

Pfeiffer Vacuum’s product solutions for testing ion thrusters
In addition to supplying the chamber and the necessary pumps, Pfeiffer Vacuum also supplies the temperature control system. For the space simulation chamber at the Institute of Plasma Physics and Laser Microfusion (IFPiLM) in Warsaw, for example, a product specially adapted to customer requirements was created on the basis of good collaboration and mutual trust.

Vacuum chamber for the Institute of Plasma Physics and Laser Microfusion (Warsaw)