To the moon and beyond: Aerospace engineering is on the cutting edge of electric space propulsion

By | July 5, 2020
(Image of an X3 thruster. From the angle of the image, it looks like four white rings with a small metal bullseye.)
An X3 thruster that AERO professor Alec Gallimore’s team has been working on in conjunction with NASA in the Plasmadynamics & Electric Propulsion Laboratory. (Image courtesy of the Michigan Engineer News Center.)

The University of Michigan Aerospace Engineering Department’s Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory (PEPL) is developing the next-generation of Hall thruster technology that may one day propel the first human missions to Mars.

A Hall thruster is a form of electric space propulsion that replaces conventional rockets with a stream of charged ions that can propel a spacecraft for months or years on very little fuel while being powered by an outside source, like an array of solar panels, a nuclear reactor, or fuel cells. Electric Propulsion a technology that’s been used before, but Michigan is improving on the existing state of the art by an order of magnitude that could be compared to the jump from subsonic to supersonic air travel.

The latest version developed by UM, the X3, is not only the biggest Hall thruster yet, but has broken records for the maximum power output, thrust, and operating current achieved by any Hall thruster to date.