Recent ME Masters Graduate Receives National Recognition with Electric Propulsion Research

In the 52 years of electric propulsion research conducted at CSU, a student has never received the best paper award until now. Mechanical Engineering Masters Student, Carl Mullins, is the first. Mullins is one of many extraordinary ME graduate students who are generating national attention in their pursuit of advancing engineering on a global scale.

Carl Mullins (left) accepting Best Paper Award at the Joint Propulsion Conference in June 2015.

Mullins interest in Hall-effect thrusters (HET) led him to the development of a HET diagnostic system that can capture data from a HET while in orbit, or while being evaluated in a vacuum chamber on Earth.

A HET is a type of electric propulsion device that enables a spacecraft to travel farther and faster into space compared with a traditional chemical rocket; and they have been under considerable research since the 1960’s. What makes HETs unique is their ability to ionize propellant using electrons trapped in a magnetic field and then accelerate and expel the ions at high velocity to produce thrust. Currently, HETs are used to extend the function and life of Earth-orbiting satellites, and they are also slated to perform primary propulsion tasks on ambitious deep space missions.

Mullins’s innovation came to fruition using previous HET researcher’s work as a stepping stone, and with the assistance of CSU professors and students. The HET Diagnostic is a sensor that measures the magnetic fields generated by the HET during operation. Obtaining these data at high-sampling rates without disrupting the operation of the thruster can provide significant insight into the dynamic plasma interactions taking place, for example, Mullins’ imaging technique can quantify the previously unknown position of the current produced by the trapped electrons, and these data can subsequently be used to provide a real-time method for measuring thrust.

Mullins’ advisor and ME professor, Dr. John Williams, said, “All of our previous systems are focused on characterizing the properties of the plasma plume and the energy and charge state of ions in these plasmas. Carl’s research is our first forage into the area of obtaining high speed images of plasma current structures that can be used to study transient phenomena and to quantify an important parameter like thrust.”

CSU’s HET thruster

In the near future, Mullins hopes to put the HET Diagnostic to work in the field; collecting never-before-captured data and eventually developing it into a flight diagnostic for use in space.

“Although Carl’s work is amazing, all of our graduate students in the Department of Mechanical Engineering are working on similarly amazing and sometimes globally impactful projects, so please apply to our program or encourage a motivated person you may know to apply,” Dr. Williams added.

Mullins concurred, “The knowledge and experience I gained from CSU has launched my career and given me a valuable advantage over other graduating students in the field. The mentoring, hands-on experience, and innovative thought processes I was a part of at the CEPPE lab have molded the work I am able to do today. The education I received from CSU and John’s invaluable mentorship gave me the motivation to achieve my dreams.”

The sky really is the limit for this bright CSU graduate, and we look forward to sharing HET Diagnostic developments, as well as other groundbreaking discoveries made by our outstanding graduate students.