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Journey into plasma propulsion, the satellite engine

Business

Behind every modern satellite launched into space is an essential component: the thrusters. These engines enable spacecraft to navigate and accomplish their missions. After an initial revolution that extended electric propulsion to a wide range of applications, the demand for orbital launches has continued to grow, and the geopolitical context is reshuffling the deck in the plasma propulsion market. Safran is the European pioneer in stationary plasma thrusters (Hall current), a benchmark solution in the space sector.

PPS®1350-G Stationary Plasma Thruster - Simulated altitude test
The PPS®1350-G stationary plasma thruster is designed for orbit control and orbital transfer of satellites and other spacecraft.

Towards infinity: propelling satellites into orbit

Whether for commercial satellites, government missions or space exploration projects, Safran meets all types of propulsion needs, from Earth orbit to exploring the edge of the universe. 

Launched from Earth, satellites penetrate the immensity of space, far from the Earth's gravitational pull. To maintain their course and avoid collisions with other space objects, it is essential to be able to control them. To ensure their stability and maneuverability in this hostile environment, Safran Spacecraft Propulsion's stationary plasma thrusters (Hall current) come into action. Among these, the PPS®1350, PPS®X00 and PPS®5000 models stand out, ensuring that satellites are positioned and maintained in space.

The result of unrivalled expertise in the field of electric propulsion, these thrusters meet the most stringent requirements in terms of elevation and orbit maintenance. The PPS®5000, for example, with its extended operating range, is the preferred choice of major players in the geostationary orbit (GEO, 36,000 km) space sector, such as Boeing, Airbus Defence & Space and Thales Alenia Space, for the 702x, Eurostar Neo and Spacebus Neo satellite platforms respectively.

Mastering the orbit, from start to finish

After several years of service, spacecraft must be deorbited in a controlled manner to avoid becoming space debris. Some regulations make it a condition of launch to justify this ability to deorbit. This is a task assigned to thrusters like the PPS®1350, designed to deliver precise, modulated thrust. At the end of the mission, it is used to slow down the satellite, enabling it to descend into the atmosphere, where it will burn up on contact with the air. 

It's important to emphasize that this proactive approach to space debris management is increasingly crucial. By preventing the accumulation of debris in orbit, we help maintain a clean and functional space environment for future missions. Since its launch, the PPS®1350 has been chosen for numerous space missions, including the Alphasat and Arcturus satellites. Its reliability and performance make it an essential choice for the space industry.

Assembly of thruster in cleanroom
Assembly of thruster in cleanroom
Assembly of thruster in cleanroom
© Philippe Stroppa / Safran
Assembly in clean room: operation of bonding XFC PPS®5000
Assembly in clean room: operation of bonding XFC PPS®5000
Assembly in clean room: operation of bonding XFC PPS®5000
© Philippe Stroppa / Safran
PPS®5000
PPS®5000
PPS®5000
© Philippe Stroppa / Safran
Test benches to Stationary plasma thruster - Vernon
Test benches to Stationary plasma thruster - Vernon
Test benches to Stationary plasma thruster - Vernon
© Philippe Stroppa / Safran
PPS®1350
PPS®1350
PPS®1350
© Vincent Colin / CAPA Pictures / Safran
PPS®1350-G Stationary Plasma Thruster - Simulated altitude test
PPS®1350-G Stationary Plasma Thruster - Simulated altitude test
PPS®1350-G Stationary Plasma Thruster - Simulated altitude test
© Eric Forterre / Safran The PPS®1350-G stationary plasma thruster is…

Today's market challenges

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict led to a series of sanctions imposed by the American and European authorities. These measures had a direct impact on the plasma engine market, where Russia was the world's leading supplier. At the same time, a significant increase in costs and the growing scarcity of xenon, a precious propellant gas for plasma thrusters, are weighing heavily on the economics of space missions.

Faced with growing market challenges, such as cost reduction, performance enhancement and minimizing environmental impact, Safran Spacecraft Propulsion is continually investing in research and development of new technologies, notably through its COMHET laboratory. These efforts are aimed at meeting the needs of the space industry, particularly in the field of small satellites.

Small satellites, big stakes: the miniature space propulsion revolution

The boom in small satellites, a strong New Space trend that has given rise to the proliferation of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO, 500 to 1200 km altitude), is the target market for the EPS X00 system (pronounced EPS X 100, formerly known as EPS NEO) developed by Safran Spacecraft Propulsion. At its heart? The PPS®X00 engine. Fewer parts and fewer special processes mean faster, more reliable and, above all, more economical production. A major advantage for small satellites, which are often fragile and costly to manufacture.

The PPS®X00 also boasts remarkable endurance, enabling it to power satellites for years to come. And for even greater flexibility, it operates on either xenon or krypton, krypton being a much easier gas to capture (and therefore more economical) at the price of slightly lower performance, making it a valuable alternative to the rarer and more expensive Xenon.

But a plasma engine (and even more so, an electric one) is nothing without its power control electronics, also known as the PPU (Power Propulsion Unit), designed and produced by Safran Electronics & Defense's centers of excellence (Valence) and production (Fougères). A single engine (PPS®X00) and electronics covering all the needs of New Space: mega constellations of ever larger low-Earth orbit satellites (from 400 to 800 kg), inspection and de-orbiting services, propulsion of geostationary micro-satellites...

With all these assets, the EPS X00 promises a successful market launch. It should be launched into orbit by our first customers and partners in late 2024/early 2025.

  • Maps are available under the Open Database Licence.
  • © OpenStreetMap contributors.
  • © Safran
  • © Eric Forterre / Safran
  • © Vincent Colin / CAPA Pictures / Safran
  • © Philippe Stroppa / Safran