Date of Award


Degree Name

MS in Aerospace Engineering


Aerospace Engineering


Kira Abercromby


High Efficiency Multistage Plasma Thrusters (HEMPTs) are a relatively new form of electric propulsion that show promise for use on a variety of missions and have several advantages over their older EP competitors. One such advantage is their long predicted lifetime and minimal wall erosion due to a unique periodic permanent magnet system. A laboratory HEMPT was built and donated by JPL for testing at Cal Poly. Previous work was done to characterize the performance of this thruster and it was found to exhibit a large plume divergence, resulting in decreased thrust and specific impulse. This thesis explores the design and application of a magnetic shield to modify the thruster’s magnetic field to force more ion current towards the centerline. A previous Cal Poly thesis explored the same concept, and that work is continued and furthered here. The previous thesis tested a shield which increased centerline current but decreased performance. A new shield design which should avoid this performance decrease is studied here.

Magnetic modelling of the thruster was performed using COMSOL. This model was verified using guassmeters to measure the field strength at many discrete points within and near the HEMPT, with a focus on the ionization channel and exit plane. A shield design which should significantly reduce the radial field strength at the exit plane without affecting the ionization channel field was modelled and implemented. The HEMPT was tested in a vacuum chamber with and without the shield to characterize any change to performance characteristics. Data were collected using a nude Faraday probe and retarding potential analyzer. The data show a significant increase in centerline current with the application of the shield, but due to RPA malfunction and thruster failure the actual change in performance could not be concluded.

The unshielded HEMPT was characterized, however, and was found to produce 12.1 +/- 1.3 mN of thrust with a specific impulse of 1361 +/- 147s. The thruster operated with a total efficiency of 10.63 +/- 3.66%, an efficiency much lower than expected. A large contributor to this low efficiency is likely the use of argon in place of xenon. Its lower mass and higher ionization energy make it a less efficient propellant choice. Further, the thruster is prone to overheating, indicating that significant thermal losses are present in this design.