Ion thrusters for mission to Mercury

Paul Boughton

QinetiQ has delivered four electric propulsion thrusters to the European Space Agency (ESA), to be used on the BepiColombo mission to Mercury.

Due for launch in 2017, the mission will be a European ‘first’, using a multiple ion engine propulsion module for interplanetary transfer.

To reach Mercury requires an extremely high velocity change, which can be achieved by ion thrusters with modest propellant quantities, compared to traditional chemical thrusters.

The engines are based on the T6 ion thruster model, a development from the smaller T5 used by ESA on the successful GOCE mission. These thrusters are more effective for the BepiColombo mission than the alternative Hall and chemical technologies. 

This delivery of the engines follows seven years of design and development work. The qualification and flight engines have all been put through rigorous test campaigns in QinetiQ’s vacuum facilities, simulating the extreme thermal environment experienced during the seven year flight time. During the mission the thrusters will accumulate a total ‘on’ time of 20,000 hours, or 2.5 years.

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