Design Engineering

UC3M Explores Aerospace Engines of the Future


General Aerospace propulsion

UC3M researchers are undertaking a project focusing on the development of plasma propulsion systems.

As the aerospace industry advances, aircraft are expected to be faster, more fuel efficient and sleek looking. Aerospace manufacturers are tasked with designing aircraft and parts that meet these growing trends. One way this was done was through electric propulsion systems, which are popular in scientific and commercial spacecraft missions. With the success of electric propulsion systems, space engineers are exploring novel concepts that are more efficient, simpler to operate and more durable.

Helicon Plasma Propulsion

This vacuum chamber for testing propulsion at UC3M allows researchers to analyze how to improve rocket engines for use in future spacecrafts. Credit: UC3M.

The UC3M Department of Bioengineering and Aerospace Engineering is undertaking a project focusing on developing plasma propulsion systems. The systems use electromagnetic energy to accelerate the previously ionized propellant, in contrast to a conventional chemical rocket based on heat generated by fuel combustion.

“Plasma confined in a chamber is generated through a magnetic field; then it is accelerated by applying an electric field of high potency: following that, a high speed jet is expulsed which generates a thrust capable of propelling the system,” explains Yacine Babou, who investigates this area within the framework of CONEX (CONnecting EXcellence), a UC3M talent recruitment program.

The plasma propulsion systems are an excellent solution for propulsion in a space vacuum. Babou’s research Project CRARF is focused on the development of experimental tools and modelling that serve to characterize the plasma jet produced by these thrusters and assess their performance. With these tools, their temperature and their electronic density, for example, can be better determined.


“Improved engine performance enables a significant savings in propellant, although this not the only aspect requiring substantial improvements. Improved operability, increased lifespan and system simplification are crucial features that cannot be ignored when developing dependable plasma thrusters,” the researcher explained in detail.

One of the crucial tasks of this project is to assess the performance of a plasma propulsion prototype before it can be successfully operated in space. In order to do this, the UC3M Department of Bioengineering and Aerospace Engineering developed a facility that is able to recreate space conditions on Earth, consisting of a chamber and fully diagnostic equipment, capable of maintaining high vacuum conditions similar to conditions in space.

New concepts are being developed every day, and Babou boasts that the Helicon plasma engine is an exceptionally promising technology that has come out of his research.


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