In space, electric propulsion (EP) thrusters are employed mainly in satellites and the upper stages of launchers. They use electric current to augment fuel efficiency. As the thrust generated by these units is not very strong, they are useful only under outer-space conditions, i.e. in a vacuum where space vehicles are not slowed down by air drag.
The great advantage of electric propulsion lies in its low consumption of energy: these engines need less fuel than the conventional thrusters that are currently used in space. The technology is particularly important in long-term missions where there are limits to the amount of fuel that can be carried on board. During a mission, satellites can generate the electric energy they require with their solar panels. Satellite power generation capability has increased so much in recent years that it may now be effectively used for propulsion purposes. This builds a strong case for electric thrusters.
Satellites that are fully powered by electricity are no longer just a vision. In the decades to come, we may confidently expect them to outnumber conventional satellites. Consequently, there is an ever greater demand for more powerful thrusters with which satellites may reach their target orbit autonomously after their release from the launcher. Major market opportunities can also be expected for reliable, simple and, most importantly, cost-efficient electric propulsion systems for use in satellite constellations flying in low-Earth orbits.
This means that the future worldwide electric propulsion market repartition will soon be under way. Europe has a range of promising technologies in various stages of development which, however, will have to be translated into marketable systems to be commercially successful. To position European suppliers successfully in the market, work needs to be done both nationally and at a European level, for the industry still has a long way to go from the initial development stages to the economic exploitation of electric thruster technology.
The European Commission is aware of the significance of electric propulsion. To shore up Europe's competitiveness in this field, a strategic research cluster (SRC) was created under the Horizon 2020 space programme to address in-space electric propulsion and station-keeping. This cluster is to be implemented by a funding scheme comprising on the one hand a coordinating project called Programme Support Activity (PSA) and on the other hand a number of Operational Grants (OGs), i.e. industrial or research grants to provide for hardware items or entire systems.
The main task of the programme support activity is to develop a masterplan for the strategic research cluster, called the SRC roadmap. Further tasks include advising the European Commission on tenders for operational grants and ensuring that the results of the operational grants are compatible with the roadmap and contribute towards the overarching objective of the cluster.
Operational grants are called for tender by the European Commission in the form of research and innovation grants (100 per cent) and innovation grants (70 per cent).
They will address various technological challenges that have been identified in the roadmap. The EPIC project (Electric Propulsion Innovation & Competitiveness) constitutes the Programme Support Activity of the Strategic Research Cluster. Launched in October 2014, the EPIC project will run for five years.
The EPIC project is coordinated by the European Space Agency, while the partners in the Programme Support Activity team include Europe's major space agencies and actors: Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI), Belgian Science Policy (BELSPO), Centro para el Desarrollo Tecnológico Industrial (CDTI), Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES), German Aerospace Centre (DLR), UK Space Agency (UKSA) and two industrial consortiums, ASD-Eurospace and SME4space.
Bildtext: The HEMP-3050 plasma thruster in operation. The highly efficient multistage plasma thruster HEMP-3050 was developed by Thales Electronic Systems GmbH based in Ulm. Notice the blueish plasma jet and the pink electron jet of the neutraliser standing out clearly when the system is in operating mode.