QinetiQ’s electric propulsion centre of excellence

Steven Austin, Sales and Strategy for Space and Neil Wallace, Electric Propulsion Chief Engineer

 In another example of how QinetiQ’s technological expertise is being successfully applied to commercial solutions, Steven and Neil talk about the electric propulsion work going on Farnborough’s Space Division.

QinetiQ boasts the premier ion thruster facility in Europe and a team with unrivalled expertise in gridded ion propulsion system design, used in engines which propel spacecraft in space. The technology uses just a small amount of electric energy generated from solar arrays, and is at least ten times more efficient than conventional chemical engines, which are carcinogenic and involve violent chemical reactions.

Furthermore, chemical systems have a limited capacity, with the best ones only providing a maximum velocity of 4km per second. The Bepi Colombo project that QinetiQ is working on, and which plans to embark on its journey to Mercury in 2015, has a velocity of 50km per second. This means that it is highly efficient, carrying only one-tenth of the mass that traditionally-fuelled spacecraft have to bear.

In fact, the Bepi Colombo project involves two craft orbiting the Mercury; the amount of payload that the craft will be carrying in order to gather the required scientific data means that the mission is only achievable by using QinetiQ’s electric propulsion technology.

And it’s not just science that is benefitting from our ion thrusters; applying electric propulsion technology to commercial satellites which provide, for instance SKY TV, means that the satellites cannot only carry a greater payload but they also last longer – up to 20 years instead of the usual 10-15, with clear commercial advantages. Furthermore, traditional launch methods can account for up to 50% of total costs; electric propulsion can take a satellite as far as it needs to go at a fraction of the expense, enabling the customer to benefit from significant cost efficiencies.

As an enabler of high volume, lower cost space projects, it’s clear that electric propulsion is changing the arena. QinetiQ, as a subject matter expert in the only European country able to offer the high-power experience, is clearly able to position itself as a key player in Europe. We not only have the expertise but also the necessary facilities, with two large test chambers at our Farnborough headquarters.

The UK can play a substantive role in Europe’s commercialisation of space development, and take advantage of the huge opportunities that exist for industrial growth. QinetiQ‘s centre of excellence for space, with its design and test capabilities, as well as its extremely close ties with academia, is very well placed to be at the centre of these exciting developments.

Get further information about our work in the field of satellite ion propulsion.

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