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Electric propulsion

Foreword

Electric propulsion is an alternative to chemical rocket-engines technolgy aimed at reducing propellant consumption through the generation of very high exhaust velocities. Since the first Russian and US experiments in the 60's, it has evolved into an exceptionally sound solution for spacecraft positioning, orbit transfers and interplanetary missions.

With over a hundred electric thrusters flown on commercial satellites between 1990 and 2000, the last decade has been indisputably a major milestone in the history of electric propulsion. And while electric propulsion enters the new millennium, its acceptance for commercial mission is not only expected to broaden further, but the success of the Deep-Space I comet probe in 2001 also forecasts an era of space exploration where this technology is meant to play a tremendous role.

Scope

There exist numerous ways to convert electrical energy into directed kinetic energy, and an accordingly large number of electric thrusters concepts have been devised for various applications and performance requirements. Only three of the most mature technologies, however, are presented in these pages. In particular electrojets, which are essentially classical rocket-engines with additional electrical heating, are not discussed in this material since their physics is actually rather affiliated to chemical engines. Information about other advanced electric propulsion technologies (field effect thrusters, pulsed plasma thrusters, Vasimr, M2P2, ...) can be found in the links section.

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