# What are low-mass ways of supplying power for a 4.5kW ion thruster?

I'm in the process of designing a spacecraft for a project, and I'm at the stage of choosing the propulsion system.

I'm going to use a Boeing 702 ion thruster (requiring 4.5kW) for propulsion, to take a spacecraft from Earth to Mars. Hence I need to know ways of generating 4.5kW and the mass (mass should be minimised) of whatever is supplying this energy.

• So your question really is rather "I need 4.5 kW of electricity for my thruster, what low-mass alternatives are there for getting that power output?"?
– user
Mar 16, 2015 at 13:16
• Where is your spacecraft going? This will significantly affect the size of the required solar array Mar 16, 2015 at 13:24
• Yes, I need a power output of 4.5kW and I need to know the mass of whatever it is that's supplying that power, i.e. the mass of the solar arrays/generator/etc.
– Jake
Mar 16, 2015 at 13:27
• It's going to Mars from Earth. I shall make these edits to the post.
– Jake
Mar 16, 2015 at 13:29
• One wonders if beamed power is an option here. Nov 1, 2019 at 8:30

Batteries and fuel cells are probably out because of the long duration of an Earth-Mars mission.

Here are some mass and power output numbers for radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs); the most mass-efficient of these run about 5W/kg, so you're looking at about a ton of RTG to run your thruster full up. RTGs are attractive for outer planetary missions because solar energy falls off with the square of distance, but we're only going to Mars, so it's likely that solar is a better option.

According to Wikipedia, solar arrays can produce as much as 300W/kg at Earth distance. It's not clear from that article how practical cells are at that power to mass ratio, or how much of the mass is structural/deployment mechanics versus actual cells, so your mileage may vary considerably if you're going beyond "back of the envelope" design of the spacecraft, but let's go with that number.

At Mars orbit, 1.666 AU, you're only going to get about 35% of that, about 100W/kg -- still a lot better than RTGs! So your solar array is going to mass on the order of 50kg. You might want to take extra solar panels as insurance against degradation, or just run the ion thruster at lower power later in the mission if necessary.

If you're very patient, there may be a sweet spot where a smaller solar array plus a large battery can run the thruster at full power for limited periods of time for less mass investment than a big solar array. This will mean that, e.g. orbital adjustments will have to be done in more, shorter burns than if you can sustain the thruster constantly.

• If it's an ion thruster, do we still use the term "burns" or should it rather be "blasts" or something? Mar 17, 2015 at 7:52
• "Impulses", I guess, would be the technical term, but technicalities never stopped a colorful-but-no-longer-accurate term from remaining in use. Mar 17, 2015 at 18:16

A quick bit of Googling finds that the Dawn mission's 2.3kW ion engine is powered by a 36.4 m^2 solar array that generates 10.3 kW at 1 AU, decreasing to about 4.6 kW at Mars. So depending on how much power is needed for non-propulsion uses, you could probably get away with about 50-60 m^2. Should be easy to find approximate mass of that size array.