Case Study

Designing a Radio Frequency Processing Unit with 98% energy efficiency for the VASIMR thruster

We teamed with Aethera Technologies to design the Ion Cyclotron Heater Radio Frequency Processing Unit, one of the key components of the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket System (VASIMR), with 98% energy efficiency

*VASIMR is a registered trademark of AARC. 

Aethera Technologies


Aethera Technologies sought out the help of Enginuity’s Mechanical Engineering and Design team in order to assist with the design one of the key components of Ad Astra Rocket Company‘s electric rocket system (VASIMR), the Ion Cyclotron Heater RF Processing Unit.

Together, Enginuity and Aethera were able to come up with a highly optimized design for this Power Processing Unit (PPU) that met the tight restrictions required for space propulsion – at 98% energy efficiency.

The Challenge

Aethera Technologies is an electronics engineering Research & Development firm that’s recognized for using Radio Frequency (RF) power to innovate across a wide range of applications.

They were initially tasked by Ad Astra Rocket Company to design a new type of power supply for their electric rocket, the VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) system. The VASIMR system, under development at Ad Astra, is a radio frequency (RF) powered, fully magnetized plasma thruster designed for in-space propulsion.

Aethera, at the time, needed an extra hand to dive into the mechanical engineering and design aspects of the project, and so they sought out the help of Enginuity’s Mechanical Engineering and Design team. 

prototyping for nasa aethera enginuity

The RF power processing unit is one of the key components of this type of electric rocket, as the device is responsible for supplying high frequency power to heat the plasma exhaust. It was important to come up with a design that was both electrically efficient, while still meeting the design specifications such as form factor, mass, and volume.

The Enginuity Solution

Enginuity’s team of mechanical engineers and technologists were able to come up with a design configuration that was both thermally and mechanically optimized, that also met the tight restrictions required for space. The result was a compact assembly of amplifiers, transformers, control boards, and conductive cooling held in one magnetically shielded volume.

According to Enginuity’s Mechanical Lead Lou Manuge, one of the challenges that they faced along the way was figuring out a thermal design for the power supply; thermal loads in the device generated from small losses in power-electronics components could lead to system failure without a robust cooling system, capable of channeling heat in the vacuum of space.

Through several design iterations, the team was able to balance mechanical layout, thermal design, electrical design and converged on an acceptable architecture that would satisfy all project requirements.

In the end, the power processing unit had an energy efficiency of 98% and had a mass on the order of 40% of the previous generation system.

“We were able to successfully design a configuration that worked both mechanically and thermally and fit into the magnetic shielding, meeting the mass and volume and specifications. We (Aethera and Enginuity) were able to build the device and test it, all with great success. The performance was great, the mass and volume were all on budget, and it turned out really well,” Lou Manuge said.

Sea Cucumber Grading System Enginuity

In photo: Franklin Chang Diaz

Our Impact

“It’s one thing to have a very efficient rocket, but you still need to put propellant through it. If you can get more efficiency, and more thrust out of the same fuel, then it’s worth it, because fuel is so expensive to get into space.” Lou explains.

An optimized power processing system has a huge effect on the overall performance of the rocket, as the energy efficiency of the PPU (Power Processing Unit) directly effects the rocket efficiency. Having a system that can maximize power efficiency leads to better performance and cost-effectiveness for the entire spacecraft.

We were able to contribute to the overall efficacy of the rocket system in many ways and in the end provided an impressively efficient configuration – highly optimized for mass, form-factor, and capable of operating at thermal steady state for long-term missions, all within the rocket’s own intense magnetic field.

“Enginuity’s mixed range of skills from design and manufacturing to theoretical thermal dynamics were deployed in this unique project, partly funded by the Canadian Space Agency. Our relationship with Enginuity has greatly blossomed based on success.” […] “Overall, [our experience working with Enginuity] has been very good, and I don’t think we’ve had any problems. The people have all been great, and it’s been very positive”

Tim Hardy

Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Aethera Technologies

What’s Next?

Since then, Aethera has worked with Enginuity on many projects. Enginuity is looking forward to the continued success of Aethera Technologies and for the possibilities of continuing to work together in the future.

We are also looking forward to the completion of the VASIMR System, as Ad Astra’s current projection is that a nuclear electric version of VASIMR could reduce the flight time from Mars from 9 months to <80 days.

To find out more about Aethera Technologies, you may visit their website here: aethera.com

For more information about Ad Astra Rocket Company, visit: adastrarocket.com/aarc

You can also read more about the VASIMR System in full here.

*VASIMR is a registered trademark of AARC.

Find out more information about Enginuity’s Mechanical Engineering and Design Services.

You may also contact info@enginuityinc.ca or call +1 (902) 431-7931.

You can also leave us a message or reserve a free consultation at https://enginuityinc.ca/contact/.

About Enginuity’s Programs and Services

Enginuity is a team of talented and creative professional engineers, designers, technologists, researchers, and strategists tackling complex technical problems with fit-for-purpose solutions. With our unique discovery process, we make sure to wrap our multidisciplinary team around your engineering, product, or design challenge to develop fresh answers and move you forward.

Whether it’s Structural Design, Design for Manufacturing, Finite Element Analysis — you can have confidence in our excellent reputation and processes built on 17 years of principles-based engineering. Our design team has the ability to conceive, sketch, model, draft, and build electromechanical systems from scratch.

Some of our core competencies include:

  • Design Validation: including proof of concept and prototype testing, as well as industrial design to account for user interface and user experiences (UI/UX)
  • Detailed Analysis and Simulations Services: such as functional analysis, failure analysis, Finite Element Analysis including linear and non-linear materials, thermal, Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD). In addition, we also perform real-world testing and design custom test equipment for unique cases
  • Design for Manufacturing (DFM): including supply chain selection, design optimization, packaging design, and more
  • Structural Design, Safety and Designing to Standard, and Risk Analysis: guaranteeing optimal function and safety of structures and machines
  • And a lot more. Find out more information about our mechanical engineering services here.  

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