Dormant cathode erosion in a multiple-cathode gridded ion thruster

Joshua L. Rovey, Alec D. Gallimore

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A rectangular gridded ion thruster discharge chamber is investigated for operation with multiple discharge cathode assemblies. The multiple-cathode approach attempts to increase thruster throughput and lifetime by operating three discharge cathode assemblies sequentially, possibly providing a threefold increase in discharge chamber life. Previous multiple-cathode electric propulsion devices, such as the SPT-100, have shown dormantcathode erosion to be a life-limiting phenomenon. Similar results in a multiple-cathode discharge chamber may decrease the anticipated gain in discharge lifetime. To assess possible dormant-cathode sputtering erosion and to determine the operational configuration that minimizes this erosion, diagnostic cylinders are designed and used to measure plasma properties at the dormant-cathode locations. Each diagnostic cylinder appears similar to the active discharge cathode assembly, but is outfitted with Langmuir probes. Plasma properties are then used in a simple sputtering-erosion model to predict erosion of the dormant cathodes. Results indicate that the device should be operated at the 0 A electromagnet current configuration for minimum dormant-cathode erosion. For this optimum configuration, typical number density, electron temperature, and plasma potential values are 5.0 × 1011 cm-3, 5 eV, and 27 V with respect to cathode common, respectively. The erosion model indicates that the dormant cathodes will suffer preoperation erosion, but the erosion rate is 26 times slower than the active discharge cathode assembly. Compared with a single-discharge-cathode-assembly thruster, the model predicts an increase in lifetime by a factor of 2.9 for a triple-discharge-cathode-assembly device.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1361-1368
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Propulsion and Power
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Fuel Technology
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Space and Planetary Science


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