What is the reality of Thales

Vision becomes reality: ion propulsion in space

"So far, the lifespan of satellites in space has been limited by the limited amount of fuel and wear and tear on the engines," says Horst Strauss from Thales Germany. “In space, however, electric ion drives make much more sense. They use very little fuel. This can reduce costs and increase the service life. "

Like conventional rocket engines, ion drives work on the principle of recoil. However, the fuel is not burned, but ionized, i.e. electrically charged. The ions are accelerated in electrical fields so that a high-energy particle beam is created, the recoil of which drives the spacecraft forward. The required electrical power is provided by solar cells.

So much for the theory that, after years of research, is set to become a reality within this decade. The “high-efficiency multistage plasma engine” was invented at the Thales competence center for satellite technology in Ulm and is currently in the hot test phase there. The innovative drive bears the name HEMP-T, derived from the English “High Efficiency Multi Stage Plasma”.

HEMP-T generates a thrust of just 50 millinewtons, which corresponds to the weight of a sheet of paper. However, this small force acts continuously on the spacecraft for several hours. This is how the required momentum for a maneuver in the weightlessness of space adds up.

“HEMP-T only uses a tenth of the fuel of a conventional propulsion system, so the satellite's payload does not have to be 'wasted' on fuel. This enables significant cost savings, ”explains Strauss. “HEMP engines are more effective, lighter and consequently more economical than chemical engines that have been used up to now. The low complexity, the compact and reliable design and the fuel savings that can be achieved result in significant cost savings compared to conventional drive systems. "

The innovative drives have a good chance of being used on the German Heinrich Hertz mission at the end of 2018. A geostationary communications satellite, which bears the name of the famous physicist, is to be brought into space and supply Germany in particular with data from a height of over 36,000 kilometers.

Communication satellites make our modern, networked life possible in the first place. They form the basis for real-time reports in the news, World Cup broadcasts on television and cheap phone calls all over the world. In addition, they help to coordinate rescue operations at home and abroad. For the Bundeswehr, too, they are part of their modern infrastructure.

HEMP-T's client is the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The funds are provided by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and the Federal Ministry of Defense.