On Tuesday, July 2 at 9am, both the Aero and Space Academies met for a tour of the Electric Propulsion Lab. Michelle Doehne gave a quick rundown of the lab. Everything in the lab is used only to test propulsion systems for space and is capable of very high fidelity testing to make sure systems are ready to be launched. They focus on temperature and pressure simulations rather than radiation or gravity. The air evacuation method used is very clean – the air in the chambers is “frozen out” by cryo-cooled cathodes, some using almost 40 square meters of helium surface area. The pumping is fast enough to maintain a hard vacuum of down to 8 torr constantly.
The EPL has 25 vacuum facilities ranging from the massive VF-6, a 25-foot diameter, 70-foot long solar simulator to smaller 1×1 vacuum chambers used to space rate technology. One of the most used chambers is currently testing a Xenon thruster capable of outputting 7KW of power with an Isp of 4000. It currently has a life of 40000 hours, but the technology is still evolving. They even have an extreme environment simulator that can be used to replicate other-world environments using gas mixing.
Dr. Hani Kamhawi, the person operating the testing facility, gave the Academites a tour of VF-5, the chamber actively being used to test the Xenon thruster for the NEXT project. A great view of the soft blue plasma could be seen via a side window and many pictures were taken. He told the group about the main parts of an electric propulsion system: the ion thruster, the flow control device, the Power Processing Unit (PPU) and the DCIU (the brains of the system). The EPL is currently applying for their devices to be used on many types of missions. The tour ended with a cool venture inside of tank 6, the testing facility used for solar simulation where the group was able to see how the system works, followed by a group photo.