Faculty Advisor

Dr. Nikos A. Gatsonis

Faculty Advisor

Dr. David J. Olinger

Faculty Advisor

Dr. James C. Hermanson

Faculty Advisor

Eric J. Pencil, NASA Lewis Research Center

Faculty Advisor

Dr. Mark W. Richman


"As new, smaller satellites are built, the need for improved on-board propulsion systems has grown. The pulsed plasma thruster has received attention due to its low power requirements, its simple propellant management, and the success of initial flight tests. Successful integration of PPTs on spacecraft requires the comprehensive evaluation of possible plume-spacecraft interactions. The PPT plume consists of neutrals and ions from the decomposition of the Teflon propellant, material from electrode erosion, as well as electromagnetic fields and optical emissions. To investigate the PPT plume, an on-going program is underway at WPI that combines experimental and computational investigations. Experimental investigation of the PPT plume is challenging due to the unsteady, pulsed as well as the partially ionized character of the plume. In this thesis, a triple Langmuir probe apparatus was designed and used to obtain electron temperature and density measurements in the plume of a PPT. This experimental investigation provides further characterization of the plume, much needed validation data for computational models, and is useful in thruster optimization studies. The pulsed plasma thruster used in this study is a rectangular geometry laboratory model built at NASA Lewis Research Center for component lifetime tests and plume studies. It is almost identical in size and performance to the LES 8/9 thruster, ablating 26.6 ug of Teflon, producing an impulse bit of 256 uN-s and a specific impulse of 986 s at 20 J. All experiments were carried out at NASA LeRC Electric Propulsion Laboratory. The experimental setup included triple Langmuir probes mounted on a moveable probe stand, to collect data over a wide range of locations and operating conditions. Triple probes have the ability to instantaneously measure electron temperature and density, and have the benefit of being relatively simple to use, compared to other methods used to measure these same properties. The implementation of this measuring technique is discussed in detail, to aid future work that utilizes these devices. Electron temperature and density was measured from up to 45 degrees from the centerline on planes parallel and perpendicular to the thruster electrodes, for thruster energy levels of 5, 20 and 40 J. Radial distances extend from 6 to 20 cm downstream from the Teflon surface. These locations cover the core of the PPT plume, over a range of energy levels that corresponds to proposed mission operating conditions. Data analysis shows the spatial and temporal variation of the plume. Maximum electron density near the exit of the thruster is 1.6 x 1020, 1.6 x 1021, and 1.8 x 1021 m-3 for the 5, 20 and 40 J discharges, respectively. At 20 cm downstream from the Teflon surface, densities are 1 x 1019, 1.5 x 1020 and 4.2 x 1020 for the 5, 20 and 40 J discharges, respectively. The average electron temperature at maximum density was found to vary between 3.75 and 4.0 eV for the above density measurements at the thruster exit, and 20 cm from the Teflon surface the temperatures are 0.5, 2.5, and 3 eV for the 5, 20 and 40 J discharges. Plume properties show a great degree of angular variation in the perpendicular plane and very little in the parallel plane, most likely due to the rectangular geometry of the PPT electrodes. Simultaneous electron temperature and density traces for a single thruster discharge show that the hottest electrons populate the leading edge of the plume. Analysis between pulses shows a 50% variation in density and a 25% variation in electron temperature. Error analysis estimates that maximum uncertainty in the temperature measurements to be approximately +/- 0.75 eV due to noise smoothing, and the maximum uncertainty in electron density to be +/- 60%, due to assumptions related to the triple probe theory. In addition, analysis of previously observed slow and fast ion components in the PPT plume was performed. The analysis shows that there is approximately a 3 us difference in creation time between the fast and slow ions, and that this correlates almost exactly with the half period of the oscillations in the thruster discharge current."


Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Degree Name



Mechanical Engineering

Project Type


Date Accepted





satellite propulsion systems, pulsed plasma thruster, Langmuir probe, Pulsed power systems, Artificial satellites, Plumes (Fluid dynamics)