Record-breaking step forward in space technology led by UM researchers

Scott Hall makes final adjustments before testing the thruster.

Scott Hall makes final adjustments before testing the thruster. Buy this photo
Photo courtesy NASA


Tuesday, October 31, 2017 - 3:55pm

Black holes, new planet discoveries and now, breaking records. For University researchers, the sky isn't the limit — and neither is space

A Hall thruster engine designed by a University of Michigan team has broken records in its speed and efficiency, compared to similar devices used in space technology today.

The project research and development was headed by Alec Gallimore, University of Michigan professor of aerospace engineering and Robert J. Vlasic dean of Engineering.

The development of a Hall thruster relies on technology which utilizes the power generation capability of a spacecraft through solar rays, putting power in a small amount of propellants, more than is possible through naturally occurring chemistry. This technology would replace the standard conventional chemical rockets, as it has been proven to have the capability to be much faster and use significantly less propellant than regular rockets.

“With a standard conventional chemical rocket the gas leaving the back might be leaving at something like 4 or 5 kilometers per second. Our systems can do 20, 30, 40, even over 100 kilometers per second of exhaust velocity. And that translates into allowing the spacecraft to go much faster, anywhere from twice to 10 times as fast as a conventional spacecraft can go,” Gallimore explained.

With this technology, both robotic systems and people have the capability to be transported from one place to another in space, either using less propellant than a normal rocket or traveling there at a much faster rate. Both possibilities are of interest to NASA and have been invested in through the Next Step project, which has allowed researchers to develop these prototypes.

This technology is both 10 times faster than any engine that is currently used in space and has broken NASA’s record for thruster speed made several years ago.

The next step for this research is to operate a thruster at al least 100 kilowatts for 100 hours continuously. Gallimore is optimistic that by 2018, with minor modifications based on what they have learned from this round of testing, the thruster will be capable of going much more than 100 hours continuously.

Gallimore expressed appreciation that his research can coexist with his roles as dean of Engineering and a professor.

“One of the things I’m really happy about is how research, and the education of students through research, is something that the University of Michigan does very well, in comparison to many of our peer institutions. I am really fortunate as dean to be able to demonstrate this in person by my own research that I still do, and by the fact that I have amazing students,” he said.

This group includes Engineering graduate student Scott Hall, who worked as a research fellow with NASA on this project and has been offered a position to work at center where he conducted research after getting his Ph.D. He explained the test’s importance as the culmination of his own work with aerospace engineering.

“A pretty large team has been working on the project since well before I even came to grad school. It was an amazing experience to be a part of the passionate, dedicated group of engineers and technicians at NASA that I worked with to accomplish this test. I'll be defending my dissertation based heavily on that experiment in a few weeks,” he said.