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Peter Wright, an Aerospace Engineering graduate student in Prof. Richard Wirz’s Plasma & Space Propulsion Laboratory, has been awarded the prestigious NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship (NSTRF) to investigate and develop an advanced electrospray propulsion system for future NASA space missions.

Electrospray thrusters are a promising new method of using electric power to generate thrust. To do so, they use high voltage electrodes to produce electric fields strong enough to overcome the surface tension of a highly conductive ionic liquid. The strong electric field rips ions off the meniscus at over 15 km/s (yielding specific impulse of over 1500 sec). This high velocity allows electrosprays to better utilize propellant mass compared to conventional chemical propulsion options, making this technology a game-changer for the most ambitious of small satellite missions.

The state-of-the-art electrospray thrusters operate for hundreds of hours, but their lifetime needs to be extended to tens of thousands of hours to provide the impulse (impulse = thruster*time) needed for Earth-orbiting and deep space missions.

Peter’s 4-year research effort will focus on increasing thruster lifetime by investigating critical extraction mechanisms that determine thruster lifetime. Life-limiting mechanisms will be isolated and addressed by honing operational parameters, investigating unique operating schemes, and developing advanced miniaturized emitters. Experiments will make use of recent advances in cutting-edge diagnostics capabilities of the Plasma & Space Propulsion Laboratory at UCLA. Most notably, UCLA researchers have developed new methods for high-speed microscopic videography that have already provided important insight into extraction behavior. Peter will exploit these new capabilities and develop new mass and current analysis techniques as well. The effort will culminate with the development of an electrospray thruster capable of high performance, long duration operation for future NASA spacecraft and missions.


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