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Safran, a major player in plasma propulsion


With market development and the ramp-up in production, 2018 marks a turning point for Safran's plasma propulsion business. Xavier Cavelan, Head of the Plasma Propulsion Program at Safran Aircraft Engines, tells us more.

In December 2016, Boeing entered into an agreement with Safran for the provision of a new plasma propulsion system comprising three PPS®5000 plasma thrusters designed and manufactured by Safran Aircraft Engines. This order marks two new steps in the development of this technology, as Xavier Cavelan explains: "The propulsion system ordered by Boeing represents the first ever use of a set of three plasma thrusters working simultaneously at 5 kW to transfer a commercial satellite into orbit. Furthermore, it boasts 10% more power compared to current models", which reduces the time it takes to get "all electric" commercial satellites into orbit, which currently takes around four months. The first plasma propulsion engines will be delivered to Boeing in the second half of 2018, with the orbiting phase set to take place in 2019. 

The PPS®5000 thruster was also selected for the Neosat project, in support of the development of building blocks for future European telecommunications platforms for Airbus DS and TAS-F, and by OHB System for its Electra platform.

A booming market

An increasing number of satellite manufacturers are opting for plasma propulsion due to the fact that it offers a great deal of precision in terms of thrust and boasts a weight saving of around 40% for a geostationary satellite.  Safran, one of the pioneers in this technology, currently offers two thrusters: the PPS®1350 (from 0.7 to 2.5 kW of power) and the PPS®5000(1) (from 2.5 to 5 kW).

To cater to this growing need, the Group has created a site that is entirely dedicated to plasma propulsion. As Xavier Cavelan adds: "The ramp-up in a production is the main challenge we need to take up because Safran needs to double its production in 2018, to reach 40 thrusters a year by 2020. »


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Towards the plasma propulsion of the future

"While the PPS®5000 and PPS®1350 thrusters cater to high- and medium-power needs, there is also a growing need for low-power thrusters, which will be used for satellite constellations in particular," explains Xavier Cavelan.

With a view to offering a product to this market segment, Safran worked alongside the CNES(2) to initiate the development of a new electric thruster, the PPS®X00, from 270 to 1,000 W of power. To accompany this project, Safran joined forces with the LPP(3) to create the POSEIDON chair dedicated to digital simulation to reduce the number of experimental tests and manage the CHEOPS(4) as part of the H2020 European program.


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Plasma production in a nutshell

'Plasma propulsion' is a type of electric propulsion. This technology involves generating vacuum thrust by emitting xenon ions at high speed. It can be used for getting satellites into transfer orbit and keeping them there, or for the propulsion of exploratory spacecraft probes.



1 With its innovative architecture, the PPS®5000 electric thruster can be used to get the satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit and keep commercial satellites in orbit.

2 Centre National d’Études Spatiales

3 Laboratoire de Physique des Plasmas

4 Consortium for Hall Effect in Orbit Propulsion System