ThrustMe and the Australian National University to investigate electrothermal plasmas for space and industrial applications

Posted on 19 July, 2021

ThrustMe has signed a research agreement with the Research School of Physics at the Australian National University (ANU) to study new electrothermal plasma systems and alternative propellants for space applications including spacecraft propulsion, simulation of low-Earth-orbit environments and future in-situ resource utilization. The plasma systems also have important ground-based industrial applications related to material processing and waste gas disposal. 

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The choice of propellant is an important consideration for a propulsion system, not just because of its performance, but also due to factors associated with safety, sustainability, and emerging trends related to in-orbit refuelling and future in-situ resource utilization (from the Moon, Mars or asteroids for example). ThrustMe is actively studying alternative propellants, and recently made history with the world’s first in-orbit demonstration of an iodine-fuelled electric propulsion system based on gridded ion thruster technology.

Other possible propellants such as water, carbon dioxide or nitrogen, are well suited to propulsion technologies like electrothermal plasma thrusters. In these systems, electric power is used to produce a high-density plasma that heats the propellant gas to very high temperatures before being accelerated through a rocket nozzle. Because gas heating is not limited by the energy released during chemical reactions, plasma-gas heating allows temperatures as high as 10 000 oC to be obtained. Electrothermal thrusters also have a higher thrust-to-power ratio than many other electric propulsion systems, which allows faster maneuvers to be performed for applications such as satellite constellation deployment or collision avoidance. ThrustMe is undertaking research on electrothermal plasmas to develop new propulsion systems to address different mission needs and expand the range of products available to customers.

Plasma-gas heating also has other space applications, including the simulation of low-Earth-orbit space environments to test satellite components and materials, and future in-situ resource utilization where plasma-based dissociation of molecular gases, such as carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, can produce oxygen for astronauts or propellant for chemical rockets.

Electrothermal plasmas are of use for many terrestrial applications as well, particularly industrial material processing and waste gas disposal, which are topics currently being studied by Associate Professor Cormac Corr at ANU. Despite these applications being quite different from propulsion, the fundamental operating principles are similar, and ThrustMe and ANU have signed and commenced a joint research collaboration. “I am delighted to be able to collaborate with this vibrant new space company, enabling Australia to rapidly strengthen capability and expertise in space-related research. Through our combined expertise we have the know-how to push the boundaries of plasma technology into new industries.” says Cormac Corr, Group Leader of the Experimental Plasma Science group in the Research School of Physics at the ANU.

“We are very happy to be able to work with a world-class institution like ANU on this exciting project, and leveraging our combined plasma physics and space expertise will help to develop innovative new plasma systems to meet emerging space-based, and ground-based, market needs” says Trevor Lafleur, a principal engineer at ThrustMe leading the project.

The research project will involve a fundamental and applied investigation of different electrothermal plasma systems and operating gases, and will initially continue for 3 years. ThrustMe has a strong interest in education and student training, and the collaboration with ANU will include a dedicated PhD student who will have the opportunity to be involved in cutting edge space research while gaining valuable experience working directly with a space propulsion company.

ThrustMe has a historical connection with ANU, with the CEO Ane Aanesland having performed a postdoctoral fellowship there, and Trevor having completed a PhD there almost ten years ago. Trevor is now permanently based in Canberra with an office located at the Canberra Innovation Network, and ThrustMe has plans to expand and setup a formal branch in 2022. “Australia is quickly emerging as a space nation with a flourishing ecosystem of new space companies and an excellent research infrastructure.  We already have a foot on the ground, and our collaboration with the ANU is a first step in expanding into the Asia-Pacific region and helping to contribute to the rapidly growing Australian space industry” says Ane Aanesland, founder and CEO of ThrustMe.


About ThrustMe:
ThrustMe offers true turnkey, smart and streamlined in-orbit propulsion solutions, critical for the growing space industry facing new challenges due to the rise of satellite constellations. As experts in in-space propulsion, alternative space propellants, and satellite orbital maneuvering strategies, ThrustMe enables a future where space is used sustainably to create value both on Earth, and beyond. Founded in 2017 with a headquarters just south of Paris, France, ThrustMe has a complete portfolio of game-changing turnkey propulsion products that have already been tested in space and delivered to clients worldwide.

About the ANU Research School of Physics:
The Research School of Physics represents Australia's largest university-based research and teaching activity in the physics discipline. The underlying drive of the research is in the fundamental importance of physics to all of science and technology and the key role physics must play in addressing the challenges facing the modern world. Associate Professor Cormac Corr is the group leader of the Experimental Plasma Science group in the Research School of Physics at the ANU. His group undertakes research in plasma science, translating university lab-based experiments into real world applications.

www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/thruster-research-to-help-propel-spacecraft

Plume from a prototype electrothermal plasma thruster. Credit ANU