Kinetic Modeling of Spacecraft Surfaces in a Plume Backflow Region

Nakul Nuwal, Revathi Jambunathan, Deborah A. Levin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Plasma-surface interactions caused by electric propulsion devices are an important spacecraft aspect of the design that is difficult to measure in ground-based facilities. The negatively biased solar panel surfaces attract the slow-moving charge exchange (CEX) ions generated inside an ion core plume, which can cause surface sputtering on the protective coatings of the solar panels. We use a fully kinetic particle-in-cell direct simulation Monte Carlo (PIC-DSMC) approach that models both electron and ion trajectories to allow us to fully characterize the plasma sheath formed near these surfaces and to understand how the plasma sheath affects the trajectories of CEX ions, their incident energies and angles, and surface sputtering rates. We find that, outside the plasma core, the ion and electron distribution functions are highly non-Maxwellian, and the assumption of electron temperatures is questionable. We introduce a novel floating potential ground boundary condition that enables us to emulate the spacecraft ground for a high range of plasma number densities and surface charging conditions. Finally, we estimate the erosion of the surface using the kinetic results and surface yield empirical relations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number9274387
Pages (from-to)4305-4325
Number of pages21
JournalIEEE Transactions on Plasma Science
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Ion thruster
  • plasma sheaths
  • plasma surface interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Nuclear and High Energy Physics
  • Condensed Matter Physics


Dive into the research topics of 'Kinetic Modeling of Spacecraft Surfaces in a Plume Backflow Region'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this