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Marketing & Communications Australian National University Canberra, Australia
Wednesday 28 December 2005
Plasma thruster tested for Mars mission
Technology invented by ANU [Australian National University] physicists
could see expeditions to Mars become a reality, with the European Space
Agency (ESA) announcing it will begin full-scale trials next year.
The Helicon Double Layer Thruster (HDLT) technology to be used by the ESA
was developed by Dr Christine Charles and Professor Rod Boswell from the
Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering at ANU.
The technology was recently verified at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris,
one of the great research centres in France, under a contract from Dr
Roger Walker of the Advanced Concept Team of ESA. The French group was
lead by Dr Pascal Chabert who has been collaborating with the ANU group
for nearly a decade and has spent many months working with Dr Charles and
The HDLT uses solar electricity from the sun to create a magnetic field
through which hydrogen is passed to make a beam of plasma, powering ships
While the plasma thruster has a fraction of the power of the rockets that
launch the space shuttle, it uses far less fuel and gets more thrust as a
ratio of the fuel it burns, making it ideal for interplanetary missions.
“The next space race is to get to Mars – this is a safe technology to
take them there,” Dr Charles said.
The popularity of plasma thrusters has only taken off in recent years,
particularly for helping satellites maintain their orbits. However, NASA’s
VASIMR concept and the ANU HDLT are recent developments that may open the
door to deep space exploration.
The physics behind the HDLT technology is based on the northern and
southern aurorae, natural phenomena that occur when electrified gas
released by the Sun hits the magnetic field of the Earth and creates a
boundary of two plasma layers. Electrically charged particles pick up
energy as they travel through the layers of different electrical
properties, thereby creating thrust as they leave the spacecraft.
Dr Charles and Professor Rod Boswell first created spontaneous
current-free plasma double layers in their laboratory in 2003 and realised
their accelerating properties could enable new electrode-free spacecraft
thrusters. This led the group to develop the Helicon Double Layer
Dr Charles says the ANU thruster has the edge on rival technologies as it
is simpler and has been proven to work with many propellants including
hydrogen, a waste product of human habitation.
“The HDLT is a beautiful piece of physics because it is so simple and has
an almost infinite lifetime. It doesn’t need any moving parts, any
electrodes and is purely based on naturally occurring physical phenomena,”
Dr Charles added.
As part of its trials of the HDLT technology, the European Space Agency
will construct a detailed computer simulation of the plasma in and around
the thruster and use the laboratory results to verify its accuracy, so
that the in-space performance can be fully assessed and larger high power
experimental thrusters investigated in the future.