Pulsar Fusion develop low-cost Hall effect thrusters for space propulsion in smallsat constellations
Pulsar Fusion, a specialist in high-speed spacecraft propulsion and clean energy applications from nuclear fusion, has completed a project funded by the national SPRINT (SPace Research and Innovation Network for Technology) business support programme. SPRINT provided Pulsar Fusion with funded access to expertise from the University of Southampton to help to develop an innovative low-cost Hall effect thruster (HET) for use on-board satellites in the increasing number of smallsat constellations.
A Hall effect thruster is an electric propulsion device used on-board spacecraft for space exploration to Mars, for example, and in satellites in Earth orbit, for manoeuvring once they are placed in orbit to do things like orbit raising, station keeping, and de-orbiting.
They have become the de-facto standard type of electric propulsion (ion thrusters) used in space (for example, all Starlink satellites), but currently little developed commercially within the UK. Pulsar Fusion has built two prototype HETs - a small one for constellations in low Earth orbit and a larger one for larger spacecraft. It will use the SPRINT project to raise the technical readiness level and refine the design of both the thrusters and one of their key components, the cathode.
Pulsar’s thrusters have been produced by using an innovative, new manufacturing process to reduce costs by approximately 70 per cent against other solutions currently available in the UK. The new HETs will be used in space propulsion systems, particularly in large smallsat constellations, where low-cost components are highly sought after to enable satellite companies to deploy larger constellations at significantly reduced costs.
The collaboration with the University of Southampton provided Pulsar Fusion with access to expertise and facilities including the David Fearn Electric Propulsion Laboratory - a state-of-the-art electric propulsion and space systems testing laboratory, used in the qualification and testing of ion thrusters across a range of powers from 10 W to 2000 W.
This project with the University of Southampton was funded by the £7.5 million SPRINT programme. SPRINT provides unprecedented access to university space expertise and facilities. SPRINT helps businesses through the commercial exploitation of space data and technologies.
James Lambert, Head of Operations at Pulsar Fusion said: “Within the technology area of electric propulsion, we were looking to create an innovative thruster that will be highly efficient, low cost and can be used for repositioning, delicate manoeuvres, changing orbits and end of life de-orbiting. For our HET to be successful, we needed expert analysis to verify the solution before presenting to potential clients and that’s where the University of Southampton came in. Through their expertise and facilities, we tested the product and received feedback on the main cathode component.
“The SPRINT project enabled us to aggressively develop and deliver our state-of-the-art solution for electric propulsion and realise the exciting opportunities of selling this new product, with its significant cost reductions, into a rapidly growing market. We are aiming to push performance limits, drive costs down, and improve thrust and efficiency for a new generation of satellite operators.”
Dr Charlie Ryan, Lecturer in Astronautics at the University of Southampton added: “We’ve worked closely with Pulsar Fusion to characterise their new Hall thrusters, offering an extra pair of eyes on their cathode. This supports the development of their sales and engineering processes.
“We successfully tested two different PF Hall thrusters within the facilities, and both demonstrated very good performance. We are now applying for follow on funding in collaboration with PF from ESA and Innovate UK.”