NASA and Kettering University team up to improve long-term space travel

A little piece of NASA will find a home at Kettering University thanks to Dr. Subrata Roy, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering. Dr. Roy has been awarded two fully-funded NASA research grants to develop a laboratory at Kettering to perform computational modeling of the hall and magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) thrusters used to power spacecrafts on long-term missions.

Roy's research is an attempt to understand the physics of what goes on inside hall thrusters to improve performance and speed for long-term future space travel outside our solar system.

The grants, a $210,000 three-year research grant and another related multi-year grant, allow Roy to work in collaboration with NASA Glenn research Center's (GRC) On-Board Propulsion Branch, which is responsible for developing advanced on-board spacecraft propulsion technologies for future NASA missions and other spacecraft builders.

The On-Board Propulsion Division of NASA GRC, known for the Mars Pathfinder Mission, has developed an extensive knowledge base for experimentation and design information on hall and other types of thrusters. Kettering University will be the lead center, and Roy will work as a principal investigator to enhance the scope of hall thrusters. Two graduate assistants and a post-doctoral research associate will work with Roy to build the computational models. NASA GRC will be the support facility for experimental setup and model validation.

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Dr. Subrata Roy shows off his unfinished lab in preparation for work he will be doing with NASA this summer.

Roy said the thrusters currently in use by NASA are not well-suited for long term missions.

"Because they travel at such a slow speed, spacecraft like the Pioneer spacecraft won't reach another star for something like 34,000 years," he said.

The current thrusters are not efficient in the way the plasma interacts with the propellant because of on-set instability and associated voltage drop near the electrodes. Propellant gas is passed between two electrodes where it becomes ionized. The ionized particles shoot out at a higher speed than they go in, and this difference in velocity causes a reactional force which propels the spacecraft.

Roy said the goal is to improve the power generated by the thruster to propel the space-craft across our solar system, past the sun's gravitational pull and out of our solar system at a faster speed.

Roy, an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, has also founded a student chapter of the AIAA at Kettering.

Other schools that are involved in thruster research include MIT, Princeton University, Stanford University and University of Michigan.

"This is only the beginning of the NASA-Kettering collaboration, but the dedication of Kettering's scientists and staff suggest that this project will be the start of future innovation and further collaborative work on space missions with NASA. We are reaching out from automotive to aerospace to outer space," Roy said.