Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space Propulsion Laboratory are developing new plasma thrusters designed for satellite course corrections. Smaller, less expensive, and more energy efficient than traditional chemical rockets, the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster could use as little as ten times less fuel as conventional systems to produce the same results.

The Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster is one of several new thrusters under design at the Space Propulsion Laboratory. The idea for the thruster came from the much more powerful VASIMR plasma rockets designed by Ad Astra Rocket and its founder, former astronaut and MIT alum Franklin Chang Diaz. VASIMR is a three stage plasma rocket designed for long range propulsion of heavy rockets. The Mini-Helicon is based on the first stage of design of the larger rocket and should provide sufficient power to maintain a satellite’s orbit, push a craft from one orbit to another, or generate other necessary maneuvers in space.

The resulting thruster is small enough to fit into a large shoe box. It consists of a quartz tube wrapped in a coiled antenna and surrounded by magnets. Gas – in this case nitrogen – is pumped into the tube and turned into plasma by radio waves running through the antenna and the surrounding magnets. The magnets also confine, guide, and accelerate the gas, which produces thrust as it exits the tubes. The exhaust from the system travels at ten times the velocity of that from standard chemical rockets, reducing the amount of propellant needed for specific tasks.

Such a design is simple and easy to replicate. In fact, the group built a thruster from a glass soda bottle and aluminum soda can (acting as the radio antenna) and it worked without a hitch. However, significantly more testing is needed before the thruster can be produced commercially, in part to ensure compliance with NASA certification policies.

TFOT has previously reported on the VASIMR plasma rocket, the first stage of which inspired the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster. TFOT has also reported on other new or innovative rocket and propulsion tests including a new NASA rocket created using a combination of liquid oxygen and liquid methane, the CECE cryogenic engine designed to reduce thrust for moon landings, a ramjet rocket built by students at the Technion in Haifa, and the Australian HyCAUSE (Hypersonic Collaborative Australia/United States Experiment) scramjet rocket.

Read more about the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster in this MIT press release. MIT has also posted YouTube videos of both the normal thruster tests and the tests using soda bottles and cans instead. Read more about the VASIMR plasma rocket on this Ad Astra Rocket product page.