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Precision Thrusters


JPL recently dedicated its new Microthrust Propulsion Laboratory (MPL). MPL is a unique, world-class environment to develop, test and evaluate microthrust propulsion technologies for future formation flying, interferometry, and drag-free missions. The facility consists of a Class-10-capable, 1000 sq ft cleanroom, featuring a 2 m diameter, 2 m long ultra-high vacuum (UHV) test chamber capable of reaching vacuum pressures into the 10-9 Torr range. This low pressure is a requirement to adequately assess thruster performance, lifetime, neutralization and potential spacecraft contamination issues under realistic space environmental conditions. The chamber also features a new Nano-Newton Thrust Stand (nNTS) capable of < 0.5 micro-Newton resolution thrust measurements. The UHV chamber is equipped with a probe positioning system able to perform plume mapping using Faraday, emissive, and Langmuir probes to determine beam current, potential and plume plasma temperature distributions, and may be equipped with additional, special probes as needed. Mapping is performed in a single plane per test run, but probe height and distance from thruster may be adjusted to obtain full 3-D mapping. Quartz crystal microbalances (QCMs) and witness plates will be used for studies of contamination potentials.

JPL Microthrust Propulsion Laboratory MPL UHV Chamber and Thrust Stand Port
JPL Microthrust Propulsion Laboratory
MPL UHV Chamber and Thrust Stand Port

Additional test stands exist in regular laboratory environments, including a cryo-pumped bell jar facility for initial thruster evaluation and performance testing, and cathode development, a micro-Newton thrust stand with a resolution of about 0.5 micro-Newton, and a cathode test facility. The cathode test facility consists of a 0.3m dia. by 0.7 m long stainless steel Ultra-High vacuum (UHV) chamber able to operate at pressures as low as 10-11 Torr. It features a residual gas analyzer for contaminant gas characterization, and a precision leak valve allowing cathode testing to be performed in environments up to 10-4 Torr.

MiXI Thruster Lab
2.4-m dia. x 5.5-m long Stainless Steel Tank
MiXI Thruster Lab
Micro Newtron Thrust Stand with 0.5
micro-Newtron Resolution


In addition, the Advanced Propulsion Technology Group, who is conducting this work at JPL, maintains a large suite of vacuum test facilities of varying sizes, dedicated to various electric propulsion developments, including flight hardware acceptance test and lifetests.

2.4-m dia. x 5.5-m long Stainless Steel Tank
3-m dia. x 8 m long Stainless Steel Tank
2.4-m dia. x 5.5-m long Stainless Steel Tank
3-m dia. x 8 m long Stainless Steel Tank

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Updated: April 16, 2010