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Research and Development of Space High-impulse High-frequency Plasmadynamic Electric Rocket Thrusters

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As of 15.02.2021

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General information

Name of the project:  Research and development of high-impulse high-frequency plasmadynamic electric ion thrusters

Strategy for Scientific and Technological Development Priority Level: а

Goals and objectives

Project objective:

  • Research and development of high-impulse high-frequency plasmadynamic electric ion thrusters with high specific thrust impulse.
  • Applications of conducted applied research to production of experimental high-frequency ion thruster units and technological ion sources based on them for applications in space technologies.

Research directions:

  • Development and research of subsystems of high-frequency ion thrusters: high-frequency discharge chambers, ion-optical systems with high current density, high-frequency generators ensuring high energy conversion efficiency and operational resource of high-frequency ion thrusters.
  • Creation of new and development of existing models of operation of both separate elements of a high-frequency ion thruster and the thruster as a whole, development of algorithms and software for controlling high-frequency ion thrusters.
  • Determining possibilities of usage of new technologies and materials for modernizing structures and energy efficiency characteristics of high-frequency ion thrusters.
  • Research and development of experimental high-frequency ion thruster units with defined characteristics and transfer of technologies to industrial organizations.
  • Development of schemes of implementation of prospective tasks of space research, specifically in interplanetary and in interorbital flight using high-frequency ion cruise propulsion units.
  • Research of prospects of integration of high-frequency ion cruise propulsion thrusters with other systems of spacecraft, in particular, for ensuring electromagnetic compatibility of thrusters with the spacecraft and its radio-technical systems.- Ballistic analysis of prospective problems of transportation relying on high-frequency ion thrusters.

The practical value of the study

  1. Our researchers have developed a physical and mathematical model of the processes occurring in the ion optical system (IOS) of a radio-frequency ion thrusters (RIT), including a computation of the electrostatic fields of the electrodes, the trajectories of the movement of the ion beam, the trajectories of secondary recharge ions in the volume of the primary beam and the neutralisation zone as well as the speed of erosion of the accelerating electrode (AE). We have conducted a numerical modelling of processes in an elementary cell of IOS with specified geometries which correspond to the structures of VChID-16 and VChID-45М. The operation life of AE's made of carbon composite in normal engine operation modes is assessed to be 30000 hours according to the results of the modelling.
  2. We have developed an enhanced version of a computational thermal model of a RIT based on a computation of the power of the plasma carried from the gas-discharge chamber (GDC) by flows of ions and electrons. From these computations, we have established the possibility of significantly decreasing of the GDC and the emitting electrode (EE), the most critical element of the structure of RITs in the context of its thermal deformation under heat load. The results of the performed thermal calculations have been used as the input to compute the thermal deformation of the IOS electrodes.
  3. We have enhanced and adapted a computational thermodynamic model of an IOS unit in application to RITs with beam diameters ranging from 150 to 200 mm. We have numerically determined the deflection of the electrodes made of various materials and having various initial deflection under heat load with a radial temperature gradient of 5 degrees per centimetre.
  4. We have developed a thermal model of the VChID-8 engine in the approximation of heat emission in the volume of plasma as in a solid cell with distributed volume electrical conductivity subject to induction heating. Such a model automatically implements the equality of the power emitted in the volume and transmitted to the walls. A thermal modelling has been conducted using the Comsol Multiphysics® v4.3b software complex.
  5. Laboratory models of VChID-16, VChID-16М, and VChID-45M have been developed.
  6. We have found structural solution allowing to significantly reduce the cost of an ion and to achieve the world-class level. An improvement of the characteristics of the RIT model is expected upon transition to chambers having a smaller length as well as a spherical or conical shape. Presently, such chambers are being manufactured and preparations are carried out for testing models involving them.
  7. Our researchers have conducted a study of the physical processes in laboratory RIT models to find the maximum efficiency mode. It has been demonstrated that to find the maximum efficiency mode in an inductive discharge with capacitive coupling, in contrast with the maximum power mode, it is necessary that the impedance of the high-frequency generator is lower than the impedance of the load comprised of the matching circuit, the GDC together with the inductor and their parasitic capacitances. If the specified recommendations are applied, the efficiency factor of RITs in conjunction with the discharge can exceed 90 per cent.
  8. We have developed, computed and analysed an equivalent-circuit model of an inductive discharge with capacitive coupling. The model was designed to determine the electrical impedance of the GDC in conjunction with the inductor. The results of the analysis demonstrate that the active and the reactive part of the impedance of the load depends on the main plasma parameters. Detailed computations have been conducted for the models of VChID-45M and VChID-10. Unlike the majority of publications, where, as a rule, a cylindrical inductor is reviewed whose length is much greater than its radius, in this work we additionally considered finite longitudinal size, in particular, we conducted an analysis for a short inductor.
  9. The Laboratory has designed and manufactured a laboratory sample of VChG-3000 intended for use as part of a series of RITs with ion beam dimensions ranging from 100 to 450 mm. The operation of the high-frequency generator relies on the principle of the formation of signals with             configurable frequency using a low-power . master clock with subsequent amplification by a wideband amplifier and by a power amplifier.
  10. Our Laboratory has conducted tests of VChG-3000 using a calibrated resistive load comprised by a co-axial resistor with a resistance of 62 Ohm and a dissipated power of 1000 W. The tests have demonstrated that VChG-3000 ensures the required power with a resistive load in the researched frequency range while the maximum non-linearity of indicators of the level of high-frequency power, according to data from the dial instrument of the generator in the whole range of frequencies and powers, does not exceed 15 per cent.
  11. The laboratory sample of VChG-3000 developed by the Laboratory can be used to refine a series of RITs with ion beam dimensions ranging from 100 to 450 mm in field conditions. The thruster was placed outside of the vacuum chamber and high-frequency energy was provided over feeder lines. If a thruster is placed on the flange with bulkhead connectors for the inductor, the control system is outside of the vacuum chamber. If a thruster is located directly in the vacuum chamber, the control system is also placed in the vacuum chamber in the direct vicinity of the inductor outputs.
  12. Using the VChG-3000 test rig, we have conducted a research of the operation modes of VChID-10 for three operation frequencies and three values of reactive fuel volume flow rate. For each of the above-mentioned modes, we measured the changes of current on the inductor while simultaneously controlling the current of the beam. It has been demonstrated that by regulating the output power of the generator it is possible to change the current of the beam from 20 mA to 190 mA, which completely covers the possible operation modes of VChID-10.
  13. A methodology has been developed for the measurement of the parameters of electromagnetic fields created by the operation of RITs in the frequency range between 1 and 18 GHz. The methodology is based on the measurement of the power of the noise process (occurring during the operation of RITs) at the output of the measuring antenna with subsequent re-calculation as electric-field strength in the aperture of the antenna. The measurements are made in the whole range of frequencies of the measurement antenna and are represented as graphs of dependencies of the absolute values of the intensity of the electric field on the frequency.
  14. The developed methodology for the measurements of the parameters of electromagnetic fields created during the operation of RITs is an efficient tool for the research of the noise emission of series of RITs with the dimensions of the ion beam ranging from 100 to 450 mm. Using this methodology, it is possible to conduct the noise emission of RITs for the problems of electromagnetic compatibility to determine the degree of their influence of onboard systems of spacecraft.
  15. A methodology has been presented for the optimisation of multi-orbit trajectories of spacecraft with sustainer electric propulsion systems. In contrast with the results presented in previous reports, the proposed methodology features the use of a precise unaveraged mathematical model of unperturbed optimal movement of spacecraft. Mathematical models and methods have been developed that describe perturbed quasi-optimal flight trajectories using the stable quasi-optimal control mode with feedback developed earlier. Our researchers have presented a comparative analysis of the use of radio-frequency ion thrusters and stationary plasma thrusters installed on modern and future spacecraft. Recommendations have been compiled on the scope of the applicability of RITs. It turned out that a promising area of use of RITs with electric powers of 2 – 3 kW is their use as part of the trajectory correction electric propulsion engines of geostationary spacecraft. In a number of cases, RITs with powers of about 5 kW can compete with the SPD-140D thruster in the task of raising spacecraft with electric sustainers to a geostationary orbit using a combined scheme with the possibility of increasing the transport operations duration. Despite the fact that the specific impulse of RITs (as opposed to SPD-140D) is significantly higher than the optimal value for this task, the high efficiency factor of RITs allows to compensate for the losses caused by this in terms of the duration of the orbit insertion in case the parameters of the separation orbit of the spacecraft from the space tug are correctly optimised. Undoubtedly, one of the promising applications of high-power RITs (25…50 kW) is installation on future reusable orbital transfer vehicles featuring megawatt-class transport and energy modules. It has been determined that one such vehicle will be able to fulfil the needs of modern commercial cargo delivery to the geostationary orbit performed by Russia in 5 to 6 years while reducing the number of required launches of carrier rockets by 2,33 to 3,75 times.
  16. The developed a methodology for the measurement of the parameters of electromagnetic fields created by the operation or RITs is an efficient tool for clutter emission of the series of RITs with ion beam dimensions of 100 to 450 mm. Using this methodology, it is possible to investigate the clutter emission of RITs for problems of electromagnetic compatibility to determine the extent of their impact on on-board systems of spacecraft.

Implemented results of research:

The results of our research have been used in R&D for the Federal space programme of the Russian Federation for 2016 – 2025 designated by the Decree of the Government of the Russian Federation No. 230 of 23 March 2016. The following parts of the programme have been already implemented or are currently being implemented: «Stability», «Sheet music», «Spacecraft propulsion units», «Afterburning», «Refinement», «ISS operations». and others.

Education and career development:

During the existence of the Laboratory 14 students graduated from the university, 16 Candidate of Science dissertations have been defended, the postgraduate students received the titles of Candidate of Science in Engineering and Candidate of Science in Physics and Mathematics. Additionally, three Doctor of Science dissertations have been defended and the title of Doctor of Sciences in Engineering was awarded.

Organizational and structural changes: 

The Laboratory has modernised and additionally purchased experimental benches that allow to test and research operation processes of electric rocket engines with powers not exceeding 50 kW while maintaining deep vacuum with a consumption of the Xe working substance of up to 30 mg/s. The test bench has been furnished with electric power supply systems necessary for the operation of RITs, working gas supply systems to provide thrusters with gas while they are working in the chamber, and systems to measure the main parameters of thrusters (the consumed power, the consumption of working gases, the output thrust, and others), automated experimental data collection systems.

Using the test bench, we conduct research of RITs with two vacuum chambers having diameters of 2 metres and working lengths of up to 6.5 m and up to 3.5 m piped away with dry cryogenic, turbomolecular, or forevacuum pumps ensuring a residual pressure in the vacuum chamber lower than 3.5 × 10-6 mmHg and a working pressure not exceeding 5 × 10-5 mmHg during the operation of a RIT in the chamber (the data on the working pressure in the vacuum chamber meets the world-class standards).


The Laboratory has participated in the preparations for the staging of Russian-German conferences on the topic of electric rocket engines and their applications. Internships have been organised for employees of the Laboratory simultaneously with the staging of the 5th Russian-German Conference on Electric Propulsion that took place on 07 – 12 September 2014 in Dresden, Germany and the 34th International Electric Propulsion Conference that was held on 04 – 10 June in Kobe, Japan. In collaboration with Justus Liebig University Giessen we have conducted research to evaluate heat fields of RITs with working sections having 80 mm in diameter; additionally, a RIM-20 source has been delivered together with a power supply system, and a source control unit.

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