Revolutionary ANU ‘plasma thruster’ set for blast off

Friday 1 July 2011

ANU has won a $3.1 million grant from the Federal Government to help propel Australian satellite technology and exploratory missions into the furthest reaches of deep space.

The University will partner with national and international bodies to make a revolutionary plasma thruster engine, invented and developed at ANU, ready for spaceflight. If successful, the engine could be used in satellites and deep space missions as soon as 2013.

Project leader Professor Rod Boswell, from the Plasma Research Laboratory, said the engine will be based on his colleague Professor Christine Charles’ Helicon Double Layer Thruster (HDLT).

“The HDLT is the first thruster of its kind in the world and can be used to keep satellites in their desired orbit as well as in interplanetary travel,” he said. “It is an elegant, almost fuel-independent as well as energy and cost effective, propulsion system.

“Plasma thruster engines are set to be the future of all space exploration and satellite activities. They have characteristics that will eventually lead to their wide deployment as space propulsion systems.

“They are much less powerful than conventional chemical rocket engines, but in principle are more efficient, for long periods of time, making them ideal for deep space missions.

“In the long term, the development of plasma thruster technology will extend the range of human as well as robotic exploration into the solar system and beyond.”

The grant won by Professor Boswell and his colleagues in the Plasma Research Laboratory will also help build a space simulation facility at ANU. Based at Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra, the Space Simulation Facility will incorporate a thermal/vacuum device which will enable testing of the HDLT and other satellites in space-like conditions.

The facility will also be made available to other scientists, astronomers and industry bodies seeking to develop space equipment.

The grant to ANU forms part of a $6.1 million investment in space research and education announced last month by Innovation Minister, Senator the Hon Kim Carr.

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