Physics professor lands grant to help improve spacecraft propulsion systems

Thursday, March 29, 2012


HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – A Marshall University physics professor has been awarded $200,000 to conduct research that may help improve spacecraft propulsion systems.

Dr. Thomas Wilson, an expert in condensed-matter and laser physics, received the grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

According to Wilson, an ion thruster is a form of electric propulsion used for spacecrafts that creates thrust by accelerating ions. These thrusters, although providing much less thrust than chemical rockets, are able to operate at higher efficiency and for much longer periods of time than conventional chemical rocket engines; however, the wall structures of the ion thrusters tend to erode over time.

The goal of Wilson’s research is to better understand the erosion process and potentially improve the future design of these propulsion systems.

For the one-year project, he will use a source of terahertz-frequency acoustic waves he developed at Marshall to probe the defects created by erosion in the thruster wall materials. His research group will work with scientific personnel at Edwards Air Force Base in California to conduct timed exposures of thin layers of the rocket wall materials directly to plasma thruster exhaust plumes. Wilson’s group will return to Huntington to analyze the samples.

“Terahertz acoustic phonon scattering can be used to measure extremely low levels of crystalline defects, and thereby reduce the diagnostic timescale from thousands of hours with current methods to perhaps minutes,” Wilson said.

He said their findings may eventually make thruster testing and design less costly.

“We think we can advance our understanding of these erosion processes and perhaps lay the groundwork for selection and design of materials with improved erosion resistance,” he added.

Wilson’s lab at Marshall will be collaborating on the project with Dr. Iain Boyd of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan.

“We got this grant for what is referred to as a ‘proof-of-principle’ experiment,” he said. “If we can demonstrate that our diagnostic phonon technique has merit during this project, we think we will be well positioned for major funding in the future.”

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research manages the U.S. Air Force’s basic research program in aerospace-related science and engineering.

For more information, contact Wilson at (304) 696-2752.


Contact:  Ginny Painter, Communications Director, Marshall University Research Corporation, 304.746.1964


Related:  Professor awarded grant to help improve spacecraft thrusters (The Parthenon, April 6, 2012)