Enhanced electrodynamic tether currents due to electron emission from a neutral gas discharge: Results from the TSS-1R mission

B. E. Gilchrist, C. Bonifazi, S. G. Bilén, W. J. Raitt, W. J. Burke, N. H. Stone, J. P. Lebreton

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20 Scopus citations


During the reflight of the first electrodynamic Tethered Satellite System (TSS-1R) mission, the unplanned separation of the tether at the Orbiter end resulted in the highest tether current during the mission. In the moments just prior to the tether separation with 19.7 km of tether deployed and a generated electromotive force (EMF) of 3482 V, currents reaching approximately 0.97 A were shunted through the tether to the Orbiter electrical ground, which was in contact with the ionosphere primarily through its main engine surfaces. This current level was nearly twice as large as observed during any nominal operating period. As the failure point of the tether entered into the ambient plasma, the current increased to 1.1 A and maintained this level even after the break for approximately 75 s. The principal surprise in these results was that the broken end of the tether, with only a few short strands of copper wire, could support higher currents than the much larger Orbiter conducting surface areas. Analysis of possible current enhancement mechanisms revealed that only a gas-enhanced electrical discharge, providing an electron emission source, was plausible. Ground plasma chamber tests confirmed this analysis. The TSS-1R results thus represent the highest electron current emission from a neutral plasma source yet demonstrated in a space plasma. This is of interest for current collection processes in general and plasma contactor development in particular.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)437-440
Number of pages4
JournalGeophysical Research Letters
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 15 1998

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geophysics
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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