New superconducting magnet thruster technology to be tested on ISS

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New superconducting magnet thruster technology to be tested on ISS

To be able to go far in the conquest of space, it is necessary to develop a powerful means of propulsion, but which does not consume as much fuel as current chemical thrusters. In this context, a research institute in New Zealand has combined its efforts with those of the American company Nano racks to develop a possible solution. It’s about a superconducting magnet propulsion systemand an experiment will soon be launched aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to demonstrate the technology.

The research institute behind this new technology is called Paihau-Robinson Research Instituteand he plans to test a type of electric space thruster known as AF-MPD or Applied-Field Magneto Plasma Dynamic thruster. This type of thruster uses the technology of high temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets which was also developed by the institute.

Propulsion with superconducting magnets
Credits Victoria University of Wellington

AF-MPD thrusters, which are based on HTS technology, use a combination of magnetic and electric fields to generate thrust. They could potentially offer an alternative to the electric thrusters used on large spacecraft, the researchers say.

The advantages of high temperature superconducting magnets

Superconductors are materials that conduct electricity with zero resistance. They are therefore more efficient than ordinary conductive materials. But most superconductors require a temperature close to absolute zero to operate, that is to say a temperature of about -273° C, and this complicates their use. As for the HTS magnets, they can operate in less extreme temperatures of approximately -196.2°C. Their use is thus less expensive, and moreover, they generate more powerful fields, have a wider field of action, and can be more compact.

Superconducting magnets could play many important roles in space exploration. They could for example be used to generate a magnetic field strong enough to protect a spacecraft against cosmic radiation. However, the mass and the energy requirement represent a technological barrier. It is to try to find a solution to these problems that the Paihau-Robinson scientists are studying HTS magnets.

The experiment on board the ISS

On the ISS, the experiment that will demonstrate the characteristics of HTS magnets will be installed by the astronauts on the external platform of Nanoracks. A team on the ground will then control the magnet for several months to demonstrate its ability to generate a magnetic field thousands of times stronger than that of the Earth.

According to Nanoracks, which handles loads on the ISS through an agreement with the NASAthe experiment is scheduled to be launched in the first quarter of 2024. Let’s wait for the first results to see if this is one of the technologies that will determine the future of space exploration.


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