Speaker: Dr. Benjamin Longmier, University of Houston
Abstract: The helicon plasma stage in the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine was used to characterize an axial plasma potential profile within an expanding magnetic nozzle region of the laboratory based device. The ion acceleration mechanism is identified as an ambipolar electric field produced by an electron pressure gradient, resulting in a local axial ion speed of Mach 4 downstream of the magnetic nozzle. A 20 eV argon ion kinetic energy was measured in the helicon source, which had a peak magnetic field strength of 0.17 T. The helicon plasma source was operated with 25 mg s−1 argon propellant and 30kW of RF power. The maximum measured values of plasma density and electron temperature within the exhaust plume were 1e20 m−3 and 9 eV, respectively. The measured plasma density is nearly an order of magnitude larger than previously reported steady-state helicon plasma sources. The exhaust plume also exhibits a 95% to 100% ionization fraction. The thickness of the potential structure was found to be 1e4 to 1e5 Debye lengths depending on the local electron temperature in the magnetic nozzle, many orders of magnitude larger than previously reported laboratory double layer structures. The background plasma density and neutral argon pressure were 1e15 m−3 and 2e−5 Torr, respectively, in a 150m^3 vacuum chamber during operation of the helicon plasma source. The agreement between the measured plasma potential and plasma potential that was calculated from an ambipolar ion acceleration analysis over the bulk of the axial distance where the potential drop was located is a strong confirmation of the ambipolar acceleration process. Future propulsion applications using ambipolar ion acceleration will be discussed.