Note: Possibilities of detecting the trace-level erosion products from an electric propulsion hollow cathode plasma source by the method of time-of-flight mass spectrometry
A hollow cathode produces electrons which neutralize ions from electric propulsion thrusters. After hundreds to thousands of hours of operation in space, the cathode materials can be significantly eroded due to ion bombardment. As a result, the electric propulsion system performance will be obviously changed or even fail. In this work, the erosion products from a LaB6 hollow cathode (widely used presently in electric propulsion systems) are studied by using a specific detection system, which consists of a molecular beam sampler and a time-of-flight mass spectrometer. This system measures trace-level-concentration (10-6-10-3) products. Boron (B), tantalum (Ta), and tungsten (W)—originating from the emitter, keeper, and orifice of the hollow cathode—are measured. It is found that the erosion rate is significantly influenced by the gas flow rate to the cathode.