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French Company Sees the Benefits of Plasma Propulsion.

Plasma propulsion, which was used first by the Russians 25 years ago to control the altitude of satellites, has recently been put into use by SNECMA Moteurs, a French aerospace engine constructor. "Thanks to plasma propulsion, one can carry less fuel for the same performance," according to Pierre Dumazert, plasma manager at SNECMA. The plasma propulsion replaces chemical components in geostationary telecommunications satellites at a subs tantial savings in mass. Plasma engines save 1,300 to 1,700 pounds on a takeoff mass of approximately 3.5 metric tons. With that kind of savings, the payload or the life of the satellite can be increased.

The power for plasma propulsion comes from the expulsion of xenon ions at high speed, nine miles per second. The ions are created by the bombardment of xenon atoms with electrons emitted from a superheated crystal and placed in a cathode at a potential of -300 volts. Mixed together, they form a plasma, accelerated by an electric field. Then the electric field is crossed with a magnetic field, the ions and electrons are driven in a circular movement, increasing the likelihood that they will collide and the efficiency of the thruster.

For now, plasma propulsion is limited to small thrusters that control satellite altitude, but SNEGMA officials hope that, within five to 10 years, they will be able to make higher powered engines that can put satellites into orbit. "It is possible that we will be able to eliminate all liquid fuel on certain satellites, nearly doubling their payload," said Dumazert. Scientific probes, such as Smart 1 from the European Space Agency that will visit the moon sometime in the next few years, will use plasma to the exclusion of all other technologies.
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Author:Baker, A. Duffy
Publication:National Defense
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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