Space Systems

A subset of faculty members in Aerodynamics and Propulsion and Dynamics and Controls develop spacecraft and advanced spacecraft subsystems such as propulsion and control systems. Experimental and computational studies center around spacecraft electric propulsion (EP) systems, such as Hall thrusters. Michigan is developing 10-W EP systems that are small enough to fit on a chip for cubesat propulsion, and 200-kW thrusters that are large enough to drive piloted missions to asteroids and Mars. Cubesats in orbit around Earth are currently used to observe plasmas in the atmosphere that are known to disrupt satellite communication with Earth.

Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory at the University of Michigan

Space Systems FACULTY

Benjamin Jorns

Assistant Professor

James W. Cutler

Associate Professor

Oliver Jia-Richards

Assistant Professor

Tamas Gombosi

Rollin M. Gerstacker Professor of Engineering


Michigan Exploration Laboratory

The Michigan Exploration Laboratory (MXL) is directed by Professor James Cutler. The team develops methods to calibrate and optimize sensors and systems on small satellites for space exploration. MXL also investigates whether distributed computing across global network of small satellite users could allow satellites to deliver more data to earth. Missions include the Radio Aurora Explorer (RAX), which studies plasmas in the atmosphere that are known to disrupt satellite communication with Earth.

Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory

The Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory (PEPL) is co-directed by Professor Alec Gallimore and Professor Benjamin Jorns. PEPL’s experimental and theoretical research program is guided by three goals:

  • To make electric propulsion (EP) devices more efficient and of better performance
  • To understand spacecraft integration issues that could impede the widespread use of these devices on scientific, commercial, and military spacecraft
  • To identify non-propulsion applications of EP systems (e.g., plasma processing, space-plasma simulation)

Experimental and theoretical research is carried out on the development and application of electric propulsion systems, including electrothermal propulsion systems, electromagnetic propulsion systems and electrostatic propulsion systems. The centerpiece of the laboratory is a large vacuum chamber that is 9 m in length and 6 m in diameter and is the largest vacuum facility of its kind at any university in the nation. A full range of measurement, instrumentation and data acquisition equipment supports the facility.

Space Systems Laboratory

The Space Systems Laboratory (SSL) is directed by Professor Oliver Jia-Richards. The current research of the Space Systems Laboratory is focused on the characterization and application of low-power propulsion for spacecraft trajectory design or precision control. In addition, a portion of the laboratory’s research is dedicated to analyzing the feasibility of new space systems concepts.

Selected Project

Nested Channel Hall Thrusters

To improve upon the thruster system power per unit mass of traditional single channel Hall thrusters, a unique nested channel Hall thruster was developed at PEPL. This project studies the performance and plume characteristics of various nested channel thruster configurations to enhance understanding of discharge channel interactions and to study high-thrust and high-Isp modes of operation. The X3, three channel thruster, is the culmination of this effort. This 100-kW class thruster has demonstrated a record-breaking thrust level through a high power propulsion program sponsored by NASA. Learn more on the PEPL website.

Students working inside the Large Vacuum Test Facility inside the Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory (PEPL)


Jorns’ predictive Hall thruster model research receives Best Paper award

The data-driven approach to developing better predictive models will result in faster and higher-fidelity engineering models for advanced rocket propulsion systems.

Michigan on team selected for $15M NASA institute to investigate testing of advanced propulsion concepts

The NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate has selected the Joint Advanced Propulsion Institute (JANUS) to explore high power electric propulsion systems for human exploration. Michigan Aerospace alumnus Mitchell Walker of the Georgia Institute of Technology will be the principal investigator and director. U-M Assistant Professor Benjamin Jorns will serve as co-director.

Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering, Dr. James Cutler discusses CubeSats and how spacecraft the size of a loaf of bread are revolutionizing space technology and exploration

Dr. James Cutler discusses CubeSats and the role of U-M in their development.

Dr. Benjamin Jorns co-author on the 2019 AIAA Electric Propulsion Best Paper Award

University of Michigan Department of Aerospace Engineering Assistant Professor Benjamin Jorns is co-author on the “Best Paper in Electric Propulsion” from the 2019 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum.

To the Moon and beyond: How University of Michigan Aerospace Engineering is on the cutting edge of electric space propulsion

The University of Michigan Aerospace Engineering Department’s Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory (PEPL) is developing the next-generation of Hall thruster technology that may one day propel the first human missions to Mars.

Dr. Alec Gallimore Talks about Space Electric Propulsion and How the University Michigan is Helping to Shape the Future of Space Travel

We recently got together with Dr. Alec Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan, to discuss space electric propulsion and the part the Department’s prestigious Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory (PEPL) is playing in developing the next-generation of this advanced technology that may one day send the first astronauts to Mars.

Universities’ crucial role in our spacefaring future

To ensure that our species endures, we must advance space-based technologies and break our interdisciplinary boundaries.

MXL builds cubeSats to measure atmospheric plasma bubbles

The two TBEx satellites launched in June 2019 will give scientists detailed insight into the effects of plasma bubbles in the upper atmosphere and how this space weather impacts space communication.

MXL sends twin CubeSats on Falcon Heavy’s third launch

The Tandem Beacon Experiment (TBEx), a twin pair of CubeSats will accompany other research payloads in the June 24th night launch.

Mars InSight’s escorts: Michigan Engineers built first deep-space CubeSats

The MarCO mission opens new space exploration opportunities that aren’t possible with large, expensive probes.