A new generation radio-frequency power processing unit for the VASMIR® engine, built for Ad Astra Rocket Company by Aethera Technologies of Canada, has completed a full-powered test in vacuum at Ad Astra’s Texas Facility.

Conducted on 20th January, the test involved operating the unit in hard vacuum and thermal steady-state at its full power rating of 120 kW.

As part of the test, the PPU was subjected to the magnetic field of the VASMIR® engine to verify that there is no magnetic effect on the PPU performance.

With this test, Ad Astra successfully completed one of three remaining major technology milestones in the NextSTEP Partnership Programme contract with NASA for the maturation of the VASMIR® engine.

“Watching the test was like a dream with all parameters maintaining very comfortable margins,” said Jared Squire, Senior Vice-President of Research.

“What seemed like an easy test was a testimony to the quality of the teams that developed and tested this beautiful piece of equipment.”

With these results, the VASMIR® system is now fully positioned at technology readiness level 5; that is, all critical engine components have now been operated at full power in relevant environment under vacuum.

A critical component of the two-stage VASMIR® engine, the RF PPU provides the RF energy needed to efficiently heat the rocket’s argon propellant in the high-power second stage.

A similar, lower power RF PPU will be used in the first stage to ionize the propellant. The resulting high-temperature plasma accelerates in the magnetic nozzle to provide rocket thrust.

At a maximum rated power of 120 kW and weighing only 53kg, the VASMIR® RF PPU is as much as 10x lighter than that of competing electric thrusters and its advanced semiconductor-based design produces great than 97% DC-RF power efficiency.

The development of the RF PPUs is supported by As Astra Rocket Company and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). CSA’s support is part of a contribution agreement under the Space Technology Development Programme announced by CSA in May 2018.

“The environmental requirements for vacuum and magnetic field were key requirements for the RF PPU and having a successful result on the first test was a big achievement for the design teams,” said Tim Hardy, Chief Technology Officer at Aethera.

“We’re looking forward to continuing positive outcomes as the Ad-Astra team prepares the VASMIR® engine for a space test.”

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