Magnetoplasmadynamic thruster

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The Magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) thruster (MPDT) is a form of electrically powered spacecraft propulsion which uses the Lorentz force (a force resulting from the interaction between a magnetic field and an electric current) to generate thrust. It is sometimes referred to as Lorentz Force Accelerator (LFA) or (mostly in Japan) MPD arcjet.

Generally, a gaseous fuel is ionized and fed into an acceleration chamber, where the magnetic and electrical fields are created using a power source. The particles are then propelled by the Lorentz force resulting from the interaction between the current flowing through the plasma and the magnetic field (which is either externally applied, or induced by the current) out through the exhaust chamber. Unlike chemical propulsion, there is no combustion of fuel. As with other electric propulsion variations, both specific impulse and thrust increase with power input, while thrust per watt drops.

There are two main types of MPD thrusters, applied-field and self-field. Applied-field thrusters have magnetic rings surrounding the exhaust chamber to produce the magnetic field, while self-field thrusters have a cathode extending through the middle of the chamber. Applied fields are necessary at lower power levels, where self-field configurations are too weak. Various propellants such as xenon, neon, argon, hydrazine, and lithium have been used, with lithium generally being the best performer.

The VASIMR is a totally different type of engine that attempts to provide the same level of performance as MPD but operates on a totally different principles : it is an electrothermal device, where the energy is first applied to the propellant in order to increase its random kinetic energy (temperature), in case of VASIMR the propellant is heated using RF and then a part of the thermal energy content of the propellant is converted into directed kinetic energy by using an appropriate nozzle, in this case a magnetic nozzle. Details on this engine can be found in the main Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket article.



In theory, MPD thrusters could produce extremely high specific impulses (Isp) with an exhaust velocity of up to and beyond 110,000 m/s, triple the value of current xenon-based ion thrusters, and about 20 times better than liquid rockets. MPD technology also has the potential for thrust levels of up to 200 newtons (N) (45 lbf), by far the highest for any form of electric propulsion, and nearly as high as many interplanetary chemical rockets. This would allow use of electric propulsion on missions which require quick delta-v maneuvers (such as capturing into orbit around another planet), but with many times greater fuel efficiency. [1]

Problems with MPDT

MPD thruster technology has been explored academically, but commercial interest has been low due to several remaining problems. One big problem is that power requirements on the order of hundreds of kilowatts are required for optimum performance. Current interplanetary spacecraft power systems (such as radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs)) and solar arrays are incapable of producing that much power. NASA's Project Prometheus reactor was expected to generate power in the hundreds of kilowatts range but was discontinued in 2005.

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