tech track papers

Categories: 2017, Space Technology Innovation

Plasma Propulsion: Unlocking the Full Potential of Small Satellites

Small satellites are currently limited in capability by very low delta-V propulsion systems. With the advent of radio-frequency thrusters like the Phase Four RFT, an electric propulsion system designed specifically for small satellites, small satellite missions are no longer constrained by rideshare orbits and short mission lifetimes. By providing delta-V on the order of kilometers per second, new applications for small satellites are made possible. Some of the game-changing applications include mesh constellations from a single launch, very low Earth orbit imaging, advanced debris mitigation, and formation flying.

Here we provide an in-depth discussion of the engine performance, spacecraft design implications, and orbital maneuvers made possible by radio-frequency thrusters. These maneuvers are broken down by mission segment. During deployment, they include orbit phasing, altitude changes, and plane changes. During operation, RF thrusters are used for station-keeping, collision avoidance, and the occasional altitude-change maneuver. Last but definitely not least, RF thrusters enable end-of-life maneuvers to mitigate the risk of orbital debris.

At the intersection of engine performance and trajectory optimization is Maneuverability as a Service, a paradigm shift in how the small satellite community handles propulsion. We encourage suppliers to provide their users with not only the propulsion system, but the ability to generate, optimize, and execute real-time maneuvers based specifically on mission needs. From commercial imagery to military surveillance to global broadband communications, Maneuverability as a Service will unlock the full potential of small satellites.


Author: Jim Behmer
Topic: Space Technology Innovation

  • Plasma Propulsion: Unlocking the Full Potential of Small Satellites

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