Faculty Advisor

Michael Demetriou

Faculty Advisor

James Szabo

Faculty Advisor

Nikolaos Gatsonis

Faculty Advisor

John Blandino


The use of electric propulsion for spacecraft primary propulsion, attitude control and station-keeping is ever-increasing as the technology matures and is qualified for flight. In addition, alternative propellants are under investigation, which have the potential to offer systems-level benefits that can enable particular classes of missions. Condensable propellants, particularly iodine, have the potential to significantly reduce the propellant storage system volume and mass. Some of the most widely used electric thrusters are electrostatic thrusters, which require a thermionic hollow cathode electron source to ionize the propellant for the main discharge and for beam neutralization. Failure of the hollow cathode, which often needs to operate for thousands of hours, is one of the main life-limiting factors of an electrostatic propulsion system. Common failure modes for hollow cathodes include poisoning or evaporation of the thermionic emitter material and erosion of electrodes due to sputtering. The mechanism responsible for the high energy ion production resulting in sputtering is not well understood, nor is the compatibility of traditional thermionic hollow cathodes with alternative propellants such as iodine. This work uses both an emissive probe and Langmuir probe to characterize the near-plume of several hollow cathodes operating on both xenon and iodine by measuring the plasma potential, plasma density, electron temperature and electron energy distribution function (EEDF). Using the EEDF the reaction rate coefficients for relevant collisional processes are calculated. A low current (< 5 A discharge current) hollow cathode with two different hexaboride emitters, lanthanum hexaboride (LaB6) and cerium hexaboride (CeB6), was operated on xenon propellant. The plasma potential, plasma density, electron temperature, EEDF and reaction rate coefficients were measured for both hexaboride emitter materials at a single cathode orifice diameter. The time-resolved plasma potential measurements showed low frequency oscillations (<100 kHz) of the plasma potential at low cathode flow rates (<4 SCCM) and spot mode operation between approximately 5 SCCM and 7 SCCM. The CeB6 and LaB6 emitters behave similarly in terms of discharge power (keeper and anode voltage) and plasma potential, based on results from a cathode with a 0.020�-diameter. Both emitters show almost identical operating conditions corresponding to the spot mode regime, reaction rates, as well as mean and RMS plasma potentials for the 0.020� orifice diameter at a flow rate of 6 SCCM and the same discharge current. The near-keeper region plasma was also characterized for several cathode orifice diameters using the CeB6 emitter over a range of propellant flow rates. The spot-plume mode transition appears to occur at lower flow rates as orifice size is increased, but has a minimum flow rate for stable operation. For two orifice diameters, the EEDF was measured in the near-plume region and reaction rate coefficients calculated for several electron- driven collisional processes. For the cathode with the larger orifice diameter (0.040�), the EEDFs show higher electron temperatures and drift velocities. The data for these cathodes also show lower reaction rate coefficients for specific electron transitions and ionization. To investigate the compatibility of a traditional thermionic emitter with iodine propellant, a low-power barium oxide (BaO) cathode was operated on xenon and iodine propellants. This required the construction and demonstration of a low flow rate iodine feed system. The cathode operating conditions are reported for both propellants. The emitter surface was inspected using a scanning electron microscope after various exposures to xenon and iodine propellants. The results of the inspection of the emitter surface are presented. Another low current (< 5 A), BaO hollow cathode was operated on xenon and iodine propellants. Its discharge current and voltage, and plume properties are reported for xenon and iodine with the cathode at similar operating conditions for each. The overall performance of the BaO cathode on iodine was comparable to xenon. The cathode operating on iodine required slightly higher power for ignition and discharge maintenance compared to xenon, as evident by the higher keeper and anode potentials. Plasma properties in the near- plume region were measured using an emissive probe and single Langmuir probe. For both propellants, the plasma density, electron energy distribution function (EEDF), electron temperature, select reaction rate coefficients and time-resolved plasma potentials are reported. For both propellants the cathode operated the same keeper (0.25 A) and discharge current (3.1 A), but the keeper and anode potentials were higher with iodine; 27 V and 51 V for xenon, and 30 V and 65 V for iodine, respectively. For xenon, the mean electron energy and electron temperature were 7.5 eV and 0.7 eV, with bulk drift energy of 6.6 eV. For iodine, the mean electron energy and electron temperature were 6.3 eV and 1.3 eV, with a bulk drift energy of 4.2 eV. A literature review of relevant collisional processes and associated cross sections for an iodine plasma is also presented.


Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Degree Name



Aerospace Engineering

Project Type


Date Accepted





electron energy distribution function, plasma physics, langmuir probe, emissive probe, hollow cathode, electric propulsion, iodine propellant