Articles | Volume 27, issue 8
07 Aug 2009
 | 07 Aug 2009

Increased electric sail thrust through removal of trapped shielding electrons by orbit chaotisation due to spacecraft body

P. Janhunen

Abstract. An electric solar wind sail is a recently introduced propellantless space propulsion method whose technical development has also started. The electric sail consists of a set of long, thin, centrifugally stretched and conducting tethers which are charged positively and kept in a high positive potential of order 20 kV by an onboard electron gun. The positively charged tethers deflect solar wind protons, thus tapping momentum from the solar wind stream and producing thrust. The amount of obtained propulsive thrust depends on how many electrons are trapped by the potential structures of the tethers, because the trapped electrons tend to shield the charged tether and reduce its effect on the solar wind. Here we present physical arguments and test particle calculations indicating that in a realistic three-dimensional electric sail spacecraft there exist a natural mechanism which tends to remove the trapped electrons by chaotising their orbits and causing them to eventually collide with the conducting tethers. We present calculations which indicate that if these mechanisms were able to remove trapped electrons nearly completely, the electric sail performance could be about five times higher than previously estimated, about 500 nN/m, corresponding to 1 N thrust for a baseline construction with 2000 km total tether length.