Articles | Volume 33, issue 12
Regular paper
21 Dec 2015
Regular paper |  | 21 Dec 2015

Boltzmann electron PIC simulation of the E-sail effect

P. Janhunen

Abstract. The solar wind electric sail (E-sail) is a planned in-space propulsion device that uses the natural solar wind momentum flux for spacecraft propulsion with the help of long, charged, centrifugally stretched tethers. The problem of accurately predicting the E-sail thrust is still somewhat open, however, due to a possible electron population trapped by the tether. Here we develop a new type of particle-in-cell (PIC) simulation for predicting E-sail thrust. In the new simulation, electrons are modelled as a fluid, hence resembling hybrid simulation, but in contrast to normal hybrid simulation, the Poisson equation is used as in normal PIC to calculate the self-consistent electrostatic field. For electron-repulsive parts of the potential, the Boltzmann relation is used. For electron-attractive parts of the potential we employ a power law which contains a parameter that can be used to control the number of trapped electrons. We perform a set of runs varying the parameter and select the one with the smallest number of trapped electrons which still behaves in a physically meaningful way in the sense of producing not more than one solar wind ion deflection shock upstream of the tether. By this prescription we obtain thrust per tether length values that are in line with earlier estimates, although somewhat smaller. We conclude that the Boltzmann PIC simulation is a new tool for simulating the E-sail thrust. This tool enables us to calculate solutions rapidly and allows to easily study different scenarios for trapped electrons.

Short summary
The solar wind electric sail (E-sail) is a new way to move in the solar system efficiently without consuming propellant. The E-sail taps momentum from the solar wind by long, charged and centrifugally stretched tethers. Here we develop a new type of simulation for predicting E-sail thrust. The new simulation involves some approximations, but is robust and executes fast on a computer. The results are in good agreement with an earlier theoretical prediction. The E-sail thrust seems strong.