Production of plasma engines in Russia
Giant starships with ghostly luminous engines have become one of the constant attributes of space fiction. At the same time, plasma engines have been successfully used in the real space program for half a century, and Russian developers are among the world leaders. I managed to visit the Kaliningrad enterprise OKB Fakel and see how stationary plasma engines are created.
The stationary plasma engine (SPD) is one of the varieties of the electric rocket engine, where electric energy is used to ionize the gas and give the resulting plasma a high velocity of outflow from the “nozzle”.
Such an engine does not have fuel in the usual sense, i.e. fuel and oxidizing agent necessary for a chemical reaction with heat. SPD is suitable for almost any gas, but it is better to use chemically inactive and with a high atomic mass, such as argon or xenon. Plasma engines provide a very high velocity of the ejected gas jet, for example, for xenon it is about 30 km / s. For comparison, the gas emission rate of one of the most effective chemical rocket engines - oxygen-hydrogen - is about 4.5 km / s. The advantage of chemical engines is the ability to emit a lot of gas at once, which gives more traction. SPD, on the other hand, requires a powerful source of electrical energy, and even with it is capable of emitting only a small mass of gas at a time that is, it has a very low traction and requires a lot of time to accelerate and brake. Plasma engines are used only in space: spacecraft equipped with them have a relatively small supply of working fluid and a large range of solar panels.
They thought about the possibilities of using electric rocket engines at the beginning of the 20th century, but they switched to the first tests in space only in the 60s. In 1972, two electric rocket engines were used in the orientation system of the Soviet satellite Meteor: ion and stationary plasma. SPD performed better, and Soviet specialists concentrated on this variety. OKB Fakel specialists took part in the creation of the experimental samples, and since that time the company began to specialize in the production of engines of this type, to develop and improve the technology.
At the beginning of the XXI century, the Kaliningrad SPD-100 was successfully tested on the lunar satellite of the European Space Agency Smart-1 .
After a successful flight to the moon, European manufacturers of commercial geostationary satellites began to purchase Russian engines and create new generations of satellites. Previously, repeater satellites used chemical engines using toxic hydrazine. The use of Russian SPD has opened the possibility of creating the so-called "All-electric satellites" on which there was no longer chemical traction.
Kaliningrad SPDs are quite small, but their production cycle still requires considerable production space.
The developers of OKB Fakel actively collaborate with European manufacturers and even helped the French make their engine. However, the company has the strictest safety standards. Photography on the tour was prohibited by security officers, and the footage used in the report was later taken by the press service at my request.
At OKB Fakel, the continuity of generations is clearly visible.
Young people work with experienced professionals.
Kuhlman has long been replaced by CAD " Compass-3D " for the development of three-dimensional models and the release of design documentation.
The machining workshop opens with modern CNC machines.
“In some cases, our turners write the programs themselves,” says Evgeny Kosmodemyansky, general designer of the enterprise. And I understand that the time has come to throw out your second-level turner ID.
However, in the depths of the hall, work is being done on universal machines, where the role of manual labor remains important, and my hopes for a space career are reviving.
A necessary stage in creating a space engine is a test. To verify SPD, it is necessary to simulate the conditions of space, primarily vacuum.
Vacuum chambers seem huge for such small engines. They are suitable for testing the entire line of engines that are produced at OKB Fakel.
In Soviet times, they developed the most powerful engine in its class - SPD-290. Now a comparable power SPD-230 is being created.
Unfortunately, we could not see the work of the plasma engine with our own eyes, but they provided us with a photo.
Recently, Roscosmos showed a cool video from the airborne cameras of the Egyptsat-A satellite, created at RSC Energia.
On these frames, perhaps, for the first time, the world shows the operation of SPD-70 plasma engines in space.
Perhaps my phrase about the world leadership “OKB Fakel” may seem too pathetic, but practice shows the correctness of these words. Space System / Loral, Airbus is one of the largest manufacturers of commercial communications satellites in the world, and they take Kaliningrad SPD. And most recently, probably the largest contract in the history of world satellite construction has been concluded - for several hundred modernized SPD-50M engines.
When my tour took place, the employees of the enterprise did not admit who the customer was referring to the non-disclosure agreement. Information later hit the media.and now we know that this is OneWeb. The low-orbit satellite Internet project involves the launch of nearly a thousand spacecraft in three to four years. And each satellite will have a Russian plasma engine.
The new order requires the restructuring of the entire production, because it is necessary to create almost an engine per day. Specialists are recruited even from other cities. There was never such a load, therefore, under the OneWeb project, they upgraded with new CNC machines and equipped a new modern cleanroom for assembly.
At each table going to the engine.
Finished products are locked in a special cabinet where a certain temperature and humidity regime is maintained.
The work is almost jewelry and an unprepared look is perceived unusually. Usually, the assembly of space engines means something larger.
But the result is such beauties.
The final stage of the tour is the museum of the enterprise. Here, first of all, historical pride is shown, a “lunar fireplace” - a model of a radioisotope heat generator, which was installed on the Soviet Lunokhod-1 and Lunokhod-2 and heated the electronics on cold moonlit nights.
Of course, the museum sample is not filled with polonium and is not radioactive.
Another area of engines manufactured by OKB Fakel for spacecraft is thermocatalytic. They require chemical fuel, but its decomposition to gaseous components occurs using a metal catalyst placed inside the engine. To increase the intensity of the reaction, the catalyst is heated like a coil of a hotplate.
Thermocatalytic engines have less efficiency than plasma or even chemical two-component ones, but they allow you to create a simpler fuel system. Typically, these engines are used to orient the spacecraft and are located in blocks of several pieces.
Of particular interest is one museum specimen - a stationary plasma engine, which has undergone lengthy tests in a vacuum chamber. Thousands of hours of operation lead to the degradation of the surface of the engine under the influence of plasma.
Such tests can increase engine life. Now SPD provides guaranteed work for several thousand hours. And, according to representatives of OKB Fakel, this resource has been repeatedly confirmed by customers, and new orders speak best of quality.
I would like to coincide this publication with the Cosmonautics Day, so that not just in words, but on the example of the OKB Fakel show that we have space, you just need to be able to prepare it.
I express gratitude to the press service and employees of OKB Fakel and Ascon for their great help in preparing the material .