Vermont Patent of the Month – June 2023

As the number of small satellites launched into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) continues to rise, the need for onboard propulsion systems capable of meeting the low-mass and size constraints becomes increasingly crucial. Existing electric propulsion engines, such as Xe ion engines and Hall thrusters, are not practical for these smaller satellites due to their size and weight limitations.

Benchmark Space Systems, Inc., an innovative company at the forefront of satellite propulsion technology, has patented their metal plasma thruster (MPT), which promises to revolutionize satellite propulsion. The MPT utilizes a series of plasma generation cycles to generate pulsatile thrust, providing a more efficient and compact solution for small satellite propulsion.

Unlike traditional plasma thrusters, such as the PTFE Pulsed Plasma Thruster (PPT), which rely on high-voltage components and carbon/fluorine plasma with comparatively low exhaust speeds, the MPT offers several significant advantages. The MPT incorporates a central trigger electrode surrounded by an insulating trigger plasma initiator, which is then surrounded by a cathode electrode. The unique configuration of the MPT allows for higher exhaust velocity ions, resulting in increased propulsion efficiency.

The MPT addresses the limitations of the Vacuum Arc Thruster (VAT), which suffers from energy dissipation during the charging cycle and re-deposition of ejected metal onto the insulating layer. Benchmark Space Systems’ MPT design minimizes energy losses and prolongs the lifetime of the thruster by shielding ejected metal ions from depositing on the insulating separator.

To complement the MPT, Benchmark Space Systems has also developed an advanced power supply system. This power supply incorporates a variable storage capacitor charge time and a variable inductive switch time, optimizing the performance of the MPT. By efficiently managing the charging and discharging of the storage capacitor and inductor, the power supply maximizes the thrust generated by the MPT, further enhancing its overall efficiency.

The MPT’s compact design, increased efficiency, and improved reliability make it an ideal propulsion system for the next generation of small satellites. As the demand for satellite services, such as imaging, disaster management, and internet provision, continues to grow, the MPT’s capabilities will play a pivotal role in enabling these satellites to perform station-keeping, altitude adjustment, and orbital maneuvers.

Benchmark Space Systems was founded in 2017 with the intention of making space more accessible. This Vermont-based company has since expanded into California and England. Between this growth and a continuous commitment to innovation, the company has space missions planned for their technology beginning in 2024 and beyond.

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