The largest vacuum chamber of ESA’s Propulsion Laboratory is used for testing different types of thrusters for space.
Some 2 m in diameter and 5 m in length, this Small Plasma Facility is large enough to contain sections of a satellite as well as the thruster to be tested to study how its firing interacts with nearby surfaces. Thrust can be measured down to micronewton levels.
The Propulsion Lab has seven vacuum chambers and elaborate multistage pumping can take the air inside them down to 11 orders of magnitude below atmospheric pressure.
As a cleanroom, temperature and humidity are rigorously controlled, and the Lab is served by an uninterruptible power supply, resting on a 160 tonne seismic block that sits in turn on pneumatic dampers, to cut out external vibration.
Sited at ESA’s technical centre in the Netherlands, the Lab has underpinned ESA’s adoption of electric propulsion, crucial to missions such as the gravity-mapping GOCE and next year’s BepiColombo mission to Mercury.