SITAEL space team successfully announces world premiere RAM-EP laboratory demonstration

SITAEL’s space team has successfully designed, assembled and tested a complete RAM-EP system, operating it in a representative environment as a world premiere. The demonstration confirmed the investigation of the feasibility of using electric propulsion together with gas collected from the atmosphere to provide thrust to counteract the S/C altitude decay caused by drag.

May, 2017 – SITAEL latest outcomes on its RAM-EP demonstration can definitively open a promising future to very low altitude (below 250km) and/or long lifetime LEO missions (not over a defined altitude). Low Earth orbit satellites are, in fact, subject to atmospheric drag and therefore their lifetime is limited, with current propulsion technologies, by the amount of propellant they can carry to compensate for it. The lifetime of the S/C would not be limited anymore by the amount of fuel carried if the same atmospheric constituents producing the drag are collected by an appropriate inlet and used as propellant by the propulsion system.

This is the idea behind the RAM-Electric Propulsion system concept as well as the main goal of the SITAEL laboratory demonstration. A RAM-EP complete system (from intake to thruster) has been designed and afterward tested in a ground facility in Pisa-Ospedaletto to verify whether the RAM-EP system can provide a positive net thrust.

The experimental setup has included a Particle Flow Generator (PFG) to produce a stream of high-speed gas particles, an Intake to collect and compress a fraction of the flow and a double-stage RAM Hall-Effect Thruster (RAM-HET) to ionize, accelerate and eject the flow to produce thrust.

The Particle Flow Generator has been operated either on Xe or on N2/O2 mixtures simulating the atmospheric composition at altitudes of 160-250 km. At these operating altitudes, the density of atmospheric particles is extremely low, compared with the typical propellant density of EP systems, and the effective ionization of the atmospheric propellant represents one of the main challenges of the RAM-EP concept.

“RAM-EP project has the potential to extend LEO mission’s duration and lower the spacecraft operational altitude” says Nicola Zaccheo, CEO of SITAEL “This is intended to allow orbit altitude control with a defined thrust profile, operating satellites at very Low Earth Orbit.”

The whole test setup has been successfully operated for the first time on April 28th, 2017 with pure xenon. Currently, successful demonstration of the RAM-EP concept has been performed with Xe, Xe-N2/O2 blends and with N2/O2 mixtures. The test campaign will be completed by mid-2017.

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