Facility effects on Helicon ion thruster operation

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Caruso, Natalie R. S.
Walker, Mitchell L. R.
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In order to enable comparison of Helicon ion thruster performance across different vacuum test facilities, an understanding of the effect of operating pressure on plasma plume properties is required. Plasma property measurements are compared for thruster operation at two separate vacuum facility operating pressures to determine the effect of neutral ingestion on Helicon ion thruster operation. The ion energy distribution function (IEDF), electron temperature, ion number density, and plasma potential are measured along the thruster main axis for a replica of the Madison Helicon eXperiment. Plasma property values recorded at the ‘high-pressure condition’ (3.0×10^(-4) Torr corrected for argon) are compared to values recorded at the ‘low-pressure condition’ (1.2×10^(-5) Torr corrected for argon) for thruster operation at 100 - 500 watts radio frequency forward power, 340 – 700 gauss source region magnetic field strength, and 1.3 - 60 sccm argon volumetric flow rate (0.039-1.782 mg/s). Differences in plasma behavior at the ‘high-pressure condition’ result from two primary neutral-plume interactions: collisions between accelerated beam ions and ingested neutrals leading to a reduction of ion energy and neutral ionization downstream of the thruster exit due to electron-neutral collisions. Electron temperature at higher operating pressures is lowered due to an electron cooling effect resulting from repeated collisions with neutral atoms. Results suggest that Helicon ion thruster plasma properties are greatly influenced when subjected to neutral ingestion.
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