Faculty Advisor

Mark Richman

Faculty Advisor

Simon Evans

Faculty Advisor

Bruce Pote

Faculty Advisor

David Olinger

Faculty Advisor

Nikolaos Gatsonis

Faculty Advisor

John Blandino


Electric propulsion for spacecraft has become increasingly commonplace in recent decades as designers take advantage of the significant propellant savings it can provide over traditional chemical propulsion. As electric propulsion systems are designed for very low thrust, the operational time required over the course of an entire mission is often quite long. The two most common types of electric thrusters both use hollow cathodes as electron emitters in the process of ionizing the propellant gas. These cathodes are one of the main life-limiting components of both ion and Hall thrusters designed to operate for tens of thousands of hours. Failure often occurs as a result of erosion by sputtering from high-energy ions generated in the plasma. The mechanism that is responsible for creating these high-energy ions is not well understood, and significant efforts have gone into characterizing the plasma produced by hollow cathodes. This work uses both a Langmuir probe and an emissive probe to characterize the variation of the plasma potential and density, the electron temperature, and the electron energy distribution function in the near plume region of a hollow cathode. The cathode used in this experiment is typical of one used in a 200-W class Hall thruster. Measurements were made to determine the variation of these parameters with radial position from the cathode orifice. Changes associated with varying the propellant and flow rate were also investigated. Results obtained from the cathode while running on both argon and xenon are shown. Two different methods for calculating the plasma density and electron temperature were used and are compared. The density and temperature were not strongly affected by reductions in the propellant flow rate. The electron energy distribution functions showed distinct shifts toward higher energies when the cathode was operated at lower flow rates. The plasma potential also displayed an abrupt change in magnitude near the cathode centerline. Significant increases in the magnitude of plasma potential oscillations at lower propellant flow rates were observed. Ions formed at the highest instantaneous plasma potentials may be responsible for the life-limiting erosion that is observed during long-duration operation of hollow cathodes.


Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Degree Name



Mechanical Engineering

Project Type


Date Accepted





Langmuir probe, hollow cathode, electric propulsion, plasma, emissive probe