- Conference date: 13-17 February 2005
- Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico (USA)
Plasma sail propulsion based on the plasma magnet is a unique system that taps the ambient energy of the solar wind with minimal energy and mass requirements. The coupling to the solar wind is made through the generation of a large‐scale (∼> 30 km) dipolar magnetic field. Unlike the original magnetic sail concept, the coil currents are conducted in a plasma rather than a superconducting coil. In this way the mass of the sail is reduced by orders of magnitude for the same thrust power. The plasma magnet consists of a pair of polyphase coils that produce a rotating magnetic field (RMF) that drives the necessary currents in the plasma to inflate and maintain the large‐scale magnetic structure. The plasma magnet is deployed by the Lorentz self‐force on the plasma currents, expanding outward in a disk‐like shape until the expansion is halted by the solar wind pressure. It is virtually propellantless as the intercepted solar wind replenishes the small amount of plasma required to carry the magnet currents. Unlike a solid magnet or sail, the plasma magnet expands with falling solar wind pressure to provide constant thrust.
A small prototype plasma magnet has been built and tested. The RMF coils generated over 10 kA of plasma currents with a radial expansion pressure sufficient to expand the dipole field to well over the 30 km scale that would supply as much as 5 MW of thrust power. The antenna and driver need weigh no more than ∼ 10 kg, and can operate from a 300 V supply. With the predicted scaling with size, it is possible to test the concept in the laboratory with a greatly enhanced laboratory solar wind source. Plans for a laboratory scaled experiment will be outlined that incorporate an intensified solar wind source and thrust measurement to assess the power gain predicted. With the successful demonstration of thrust power at the several hundred kW level, a large tank test would be the next step, and provide the final confirmation of the scaling needed for a space‐based demonstration.
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