2018.P.1.4. Compact micro pulsed plasma thrusters enabling attitude control for interplanetary CubeSat missions


Yonghe Zhang (1)
Yamin Wang (1)

  1. Shanghai Engineering Center for Microsatellites, China




Asteroid exploration, low cost, Micro-spacecraft, CubeSats


Introduction: Pulsed Plasma Thrusters (PPTs) were used at the very beginning of the space era, as shown by the Zond 2 mission (1964). Their physical properties and technical performances have been under study since then. PPTs represent a simple, low-cost and efficient thruster subsystem. Today, CubeSats offer a unique platform to concretize new kinds of ambitious missions. Recent examples demonstrate that the space community has identified CubeSats as key-players for space exploration beyond low Earth orbit. However, these complex missions, occurring in regions where the use of conventional CubeSats’ magnetorquers is not possible, require adapted attitude control systems. Although several solutions exist, they appear to have either a low specific impulse (bigger propellant tank), a pressurized tank (adding many constraints for the platform) or are simply to bulky/heavy. This poster is putting forward a possible solution to those limitations with a new compact micro PPT system.

Motivation: This attitude control system is part of the 12U SIRONA CubeSat (22.4 x 22.4 x 34.02 cm3) mis-sion (developed by the Space Center of CentraleSupélec, CS^3) that aims at studying the effects of cosmic rays on biological samples while in lunar orbit and at imaging the lunar surface to characterize impact craters. Thus, the satellite will have to periodically change attitude, whether for communication or scientific purposes. These maneu-vers will be performed by the reaction wheels. Consequently, it will be necessary to discharge these momentum wheels: this is the key role of the micro PPT designed here. To control the 3 axes, 2 packs of 4 PPTs are foreseen. Each PPT will be able to produce bursts of 0.2 to 1 µN.

System Design: The system uses ablative solid propellant (TEFLON). It is composed of a capacitor linked to 2 electrodes. A sparkplug ignites a plasma discharge between these electrodes and enables the discharge current to flow. Charged particles coming from the ablated propellant are accelerated out of the chamber, due to Laplace Force, hence creating thrust.

Conclusion: The complex challenge of adapting CubeSats for interplanetary missions, leads to new fully opti-mized subsystems (like the compact micro PPTs) that will increase the capabilities of stand-alone and long duration missions, thus unveiling new horizons for CubeSats used in deep space exploration.


  • Download poster in PDF format here (8MB)

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