Electrical model and optimal design scheme for low work-function tethers in thrust mode Articles uri icon

publication date

  • January 2020

start page

  • 1

end page

  • 10


  • 96 (105519)

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 1270-9638


  • A low work-function tether (LWT), a subclass of electrodynamic tether made of a conductor partially coated with a low work function material, can exchange momentum and energy with planetary magnetospheres without any consumable. If fed by an onboard power source to reverse the natural direction of the current given by the motional electric field, a LWT can produce an useful thrust in drag compensation and re-boost scenarios. In the considered scheme, the LWT has an anodic bare segment for passive electron collection, followed by an insulated segment, a power source, and a cathodic segment that emits electrons passively through thermionic and photoelectric effects. Current and voltage profiles along the LWT are obtained and used to compute the system efficiency, i.e. the electrical power to mechanical power conversion rate, and the minimum electrical power to avoid space-charge effects in the cathodic segment. The design conditions to reach a high-efficiency regime are presented. For a given orbit and required thrust, optimal values for the tether geometry, including the fractional lengths of all three tether segments, are found. The results are applied to the preliminary design of a LWT system that would compensate the aerodynamic drag on the International Space Station. The analysis shows that the mission can be performed by a LWT fed with a power source of 4.7 kW, length, width and thickness equal to 5.1 km, 2 cm and 30┬Ám, work function 1.5 eV, and temperature 600 K.


  • Aeronautics
  • Physics


  • tetherlines; space debris; electrodynamic tether