I’ve been meaning to write for a while about a rather fascinating, but not very well known, area of research that I think might have significant implications for several areas of space transportation. The research I am referring to is focused on exploiting Magneto-hydrodynamic forces to manipulate weakly-ionized plasmas caused by hypersonic flight in rarefied flows–ie using magnets to shove around the hot flamey stuff caused by slamming into the thin air above us at crazy-high speeds. I’m going to be a tease, and not go into some of the ramifications until later posts in this series, but for now I want to give a bit more of an explanation than I’ve found available in the popular press so far.
Oh, and one small caveat before I jump in–while I think there’s some real potential here, electromagnetics is a topic that I’m truly awful at. I’ve never had another class, including a PhD level turbulent fluid dynamics class that made me feel like such a brow-dragging neanderthal as my Physics 122 class on Electromagnetism. This may be yet another niche technology that while somewhat interesting, ends up not being all that useful. But it looks at least possible that this may become a game changing technology in many space transportation fields. Without further ado, let’s go over some of the basics.
Some Background on MHD Aerobraking and Thermal Protection
The basic concept behind MHD Thermal Protection is that during hypersonic flight, above about Mach 12, the shockwave formed in front of a blunt-bodied vehicle reaches a high enough temperature to form a weakly ionized plasma that is conductive enough to be manipulated by strong magnetic fields. A powerful magnet near the leading part of the vehicle interacts with charged particles in the plasma via the Lorentz force. This force bends the trajectory of charged particles, creates large hall currents, which if I’m understanding correctly repel the magnetic field. These charged particles also impact with the uncharged gas particles nearby (the plasma is only “weakly ionized”) transmitting these forces to them as well. Here’s an interesting diagram I’ll reference from one of the papers I’ll talk about more later (“Trajectory Analysis of Electromagnetic Aerobraking Flight Based on Rarefied Flow Analysis” by Otsu, Katsurayama, and Abe–well worth the $28):
If the magnet is strong enough, this leads to two interesting effects–first, the distance from the vehicle to the bow shock increases (I think the plasma density between the bow shock and the vehicle also decreases, but I’m less sure about that). This can significantly reduce the heat transferred into the vehicle for a given velocity and altitude. The other big effect is that the Lorentz forces create forces that can produce drag or lift. At high altitudes these Lorentz forces can greatly augment the aerodynamic drag forces, effectively making it as though the vehicle had a much lower ballistic coefficient. It should be noted that this force is electrically controllable. In fact, depending on the sophistication of the magnetic apparatus and its location within and orientation with respect to the vehicle, it can possibly also produce lift as well as control torques without the need for aero control surfaces.
Both of these help from a reentry thermal standpoint, because by the time you hit the denser air, where the heating is the highest, you’re going a lot slower than you would’ve been otherwise, and a lot of that earlier braking is done at much lower heating loads than would have been the case without the electromagnetic effects.
Several of the papers I’ve read introduce an interaction parameter term, Q, that relates the relative strength of the Lorentz forces to drag forces. The relationship takes the form:
Sigma is the conductivity of the weakly ionized plasma, B is the magnetic field strength, L is a reference length (I think related to the magnet configuration), rho is atmospheric density, and V is velocity. As you can see, for a given magnet, the drag forces start dominating as the conductivity drops and as the atmospheric density increases. Atmospheric density increases dramatically as you descend from orbit, so for a reentry application, you get most of your benefit from the first little bit of descent.
We’ll go more into some of these ramifications starting in my next installment.