PhD Studentship: Development of the Inductive Cathode Arc Thruster (iCAT) for Highly Efficient Spacecraft Propulsion

University of Southampton - Astronautics Group - Fluid Dynamics, Computational Engineering

The advantage of electric propulsion (EP) thrusters over traditional chemical thrusters for space propulsion lies in the fact that EP thrusters have a much higher exhaust velocity than chemical thrusters. However, the conventional EP thrusters including ions and Hall effect thrusters have limitations in electrode erosion and propellant selection. The erosion of the electrodes is one of the main factors which can limit the lifetime of a thruster. Due to the contamination of electrodes, the propellants of the conventional EP thrusts are commonly restricted to noble gases such as Xenon and Krypton. Since the percentages of Xenon and Krypton in the atmosphere are extremely low, the production of those propellants is very expensive. For example, 1kg of Xenon can cost more than 4,000 GBP. Current thruster technology is also limited in the amount of power that can be processed into thrust. Therefore, a new type of high power EP thruster will be needed for future space missions including deep space exploration and asteroid mining.

The goal of this project is to develop a new type of EP thruster that is capable of efficiently accelerating any propellant to high velocities, and is capable of high power operation. A novel concept of a multi-stage EP thruster will be proposed in the project, which is called an Inductive Cathode Arc Thruster (iCAT). The iCAT uses a vacuum arc thruster (VAT) as the first stage to provide fully ionised metal plasma into the second stage, which is an inductive thruster. The iCAT is a semi-electrodeless thruster which is capable of operating with virtually any type of propellant. Therefore, the iCAP is suitable to be adapted In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). ISRU is an essential technology required to enable asteroid mining because of its economic benefits. This project will use numerical and experimental approaches to demonstrate the feasibility of the iCAT and to investigate the performance. The developed EP thruster technology in the project will provide an ideal option for future deep-space missions and asteroid mining.

The project will be internationally collaborated with Prof. Michael Keidar at the George Washington University.

The ideal candidate holds an MEng or MSc degree in Aerospace or Mechanical Engineering with the concentration on fluid mechanics. A qualification equivalent to a UK first class honours degree is preferred. Excellent computational skills and interest in programming and plasma modelling are expected.

If you wish to discuss any details of the project informally, please contact Dr Minkwan Kim or Dr Charlie Ryan, Astronautics research group (Email:, Tel.: +44 (0) 2380 59 2716/+44 (0) 2380 59 3881).

Closing date: The project will remain open until the position has been filled.

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