An Investigation of Ion Engine Erosion by Low Energy Sputtering

  • Duchemin O
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Abstract

Unlike chemical propulsion systems, which are fundamentally limited in performance by propellant energy density, electric propulsion devices, such as ion engines, are limited in total deliverable impulse by maximum propellant throughput due to engine wear. In order to perform realistic modeling of engine lifetime, the erosion mechanisms involved must be understood. In particular, the damage--or sputtering--caused by slow ions on solid surfaces is extremely difficult to quantify. We first review the engine failure modes in which sputtering of molybdenum by slow xenon ions plays a critical role. We then present the relevant physical mechanisms, and describe a model for estimating the minimum kinetic energy necessary to dislodge a surface atom. Over seventeen analytical approaches to the energy dependence of sputtering have been published in the literature. We implement the four that are most relevant to ion engine erosion processes. In addition, we use the Monte-Carlo simulation program TRIM to calculate sputtering yields. We find, in particular, that the relative sensitivity of sputtering yield to surface binding energy increases dramatically near the sputtering threshold energy. Although the surface binding energy is a (weak) function of temperature, we show that the sputtering yield should not increase significantly at temperatures typical of ion engine operation. An experimental approach to the measurement of low energy sputtering yields is implemented and validated. Based on the Quartz Crystal Microbalance (QCM) technique, this method takes advantage of the differential mass sensitivity exhibited by the piezoelectric quartz resonator used in this study. Because of the importance of surface contamination in low energy sputtering, a surface kinetics model is presented to describe a surface under the simultaneous cleaning effect of ion bombardment, and background gas flow contamination. A special case of simultaneous surface contamination and erosion occurs during engine ground testing, where carbon is backsputtered on the accelerator grid from the facility. We describe experiments to measure ion-induced desorption cross-sections for carbon on molybdenum, before concluding that the protective effect of the carbon contamination is unlikely to significantly affect engine erosion, so that ground testing results are applicable to space operations.

Author-supplied keywords

  • 0538:Aerospace materials
  • 0794:Materials science
  • Applied sciences
  • Electric propulsion
  • Erosion
  • Ion engine
  • Sputtering

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Authors

  • O Duchemin

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