QinetiQ’s ion propulsion chamber is open for business

QinetiQ has recently commenced commercial operations in its new ion propulsion chamber, where two large thrusters can be simultaneously fired, in a total vacuum, at full power.

QinetiQ has just commenced commercial operations in its new ion propulsion chamber, now the largest spacecraft electric propulsion test facility in Europe – where two large thrusters can be simultaneously fired, in a total vacuum, at full power.

Measuring 3.8m in diameter by 10m in length, the chamber can be used to test both high power Hall Effect Thrusters (HET) and Gridded Ion Engines (GIE).

Snecma is the first commercial company to benefit from the chamber and is using it for development testing of its next-generation, high-power HET engine.

QinetiQ is also developing its own series of GIEs and the European Space Agency has confirmed that QinetiQ had been selected to demonstrate the critical space electric propulsion performance required for the Agency’s Bepi Columbo mission to Mercury.

Electric propulsion’s efficiency means that the Bepi Colombo spacecraft will be a fraction of the size of one using conventional propulsion. It can also cover the 92.7 million km to Mercury in only 3½ years using only 350 kg of propellant, which is the equivalent of around 658,000 mpg.

Designed and supported by the QinetiQ electric propulsion team, the facility is equipped with an extensive range of diagnostics that allow the thrusters performance, lifetime and spacecraft interfaces to be fully characterised.

A unique feature of the chamber is the recycling of the xenon gas that is used as the propellant for these thrusters. QinetiQ has equipped the chamber with a xenon reclamation system that will allow the gas to be recovered. It is then purified and available for re-use, significantly reducing the operating costs of this expensive gas.

‘Electric propulsion is one of the most significant enabling technologies for future space satellites and travel,’ said Richard Blott, Channel Manager for the Space Industry at QinetiQ. ‘Future spacecraft will require much less propellant than chemical systems so they will be able to be both smaller, travel further and for longer. Payload capacity should also be increased and it will cost less to launch the satellite or spacecraft.’