Thermal phenomena and power balance in a helicon plasma
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This work is motivated by the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) experiment. This device uses a helicon antenna to generate a plasma inside a dielectric tube, which is radially confined and directed towards the rocket nozzle by an axial magnetic field. An ion cyclotron heating antenna further heats the ions, and a magnetic nozzle accelerates the plasma along the confining magnetic field as it leaves the rocket, ultimately allowing it to detach from the magnetic field and produce thrust. The experimental research presented here provides insight into the physical mechanisms of power flow in a helicon system by providing an overall system power balance in the form of heat flux measurements, and exploring changes in the heat fluxes in different parts of the system in response to varying operational parameters. An infrared (IR) camera measures the total heat flux into the dielectric tube surface, and axially scanned bolometer and UV photodiode probes measure the radial power loss from particles and radiation. Results from IR camera measurements on three different helicon systems are presented: the VASIMR VX-50 experiment, the VASIMR VX-CR experiment, and the University of Texas at Austin (UT) helicon experiment. These results demonstrate the development of the IR camera diagnostic for use on helicon systems of varying scale and geometry, and show reasonable agreement as to the fraction of input power lost to the dielectric tube walls. On the UT experiment, the results presented account for essentially all of the input power, providing a full system power balance. The data from all three experiments indicate that radial transport of ions to the interior wall is the dominant mechanism of power loss, with UV radiation contributing a small percentage. Additional experiments on the UT helicon explore energy and particle transport to the wall due to capacitive coupling of ions near the antenna. These experiments show clear damage to the dielectric tube surface directly under the antenna, due to physical plasma etching of the surface by bombarding ions that are accelerated into the wall by local electric fields from the antenna.