UW ESS Advanced Plasma Propulsion Lab

My Contribution and Project Overview

The Advanced Propulsion Laboratory in the University of Washington' s Earth & Space Sciences Department is focused on developing and testing novel, plasma-based thruster concepts for use in satellites and spacecraft. One of the main designs considered is the High Power Helicon (HPH) thruster. Throughout the summer, I worked in support of this project along with Dr. James Prager and Dr. Race Robertson, Ilia Slobodov, and another undergraduate researcher, Reece Beigh.

The theory behind the High Power Helicon (HPH) experiment was born with the discovery of “whistler waves”, an electromagnetic wave emitted when lightning strikes, so named for the descending frequency over time characteristic of these waves.

As a lightning bolt develops, the air through which the electricity travels is ionized, electrically charged, as electrons are stripped from their individual host atoms. This “soup” of ions and electrons is called a plasma. Whistler waves are created as the plasma is formed and then breaks down and are of the limited “resonant frequencies” that can propagate through plasma.

In the HPH, rather than using plasma to create a whistler wave , the process is reversed and plasma is further excited by exposing it to a whistler wave within a previously determined to be among its resonant frequencies. This is accomplished by running high currents through a Helicon, a helically-shaped antenna. This allows the plasma to then be ejected from the area within proximity of the antenna, as the charged particles that make up the plasma follow the magnetic field created by the Helicon and magnetic nozzles. Previous ion-drive systems such as those used on NASA’s Deep Space 1 craft use a system of parallel, oppositely charged plates to accelerate plasma. This means however that these engines must increase in diameter to increase thrust. To increase thrust using the HPH system, it is only necessary to drive more current through the antenna allowing for a more compact engine that can be more easily adapted as power-creation ability develops.


Dr. Robert Winglee, University of Washington, Earth and Space Sciences

Dr. James Prager, University of Washington, Earth and Space Sciences


Poster Presented at 2011 SURP Student Poster Exhibition

The plasma jet from the HPH source taken with a high-speed camera

Soldering an high-power switching board. It turns out this was the preliminary design that allowed the founding of Eagle Harbor Technologies.