MAE Seminar Series

Ion Propulsion for Small Satellites

Elaine Petro.

Dr. Elaine Petro

Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Cornell University

March 30, 2023 | 3:30 p.m. | 337 Bell Hall


High-efficiency space propulsion devices utilize ion plumes to generate thrust while minimizing propellant mass. Novel thruster designs have made ion propulsion accessible even at the scale of a Cubesat. These propulsion systems motivate a deeper understanding of the physics of an expanding ion beam and the chemistry of particle collisions. We present state of the art numerical models of the plume dynamics which are necessary explore design variables, to understand operating conditions, and to improve performance. Beyond applications in satellite propulsion, we will discuss opportunities to utilize these ion sources in new planetary instrument technology. 


Elaine Petro is an Assistant Professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University. She is the director of ASTRAlab, a research lab focused on sustainable space propulsion and exploration architectures. Elaine completed her PhD at the University of Maryland, in the Space Power and Propulsion Laboratory, studying water plasma chemistry for propulsion. She also spent several years in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics as a visiting student and post-doctoral researcher, studying electrospray thruster technology for small satellite platforms. Elaine has been named an ARCS Scholar, National Science Foundation and Amelia Earhart fellow, and was recognized as one of Aviation Week & Space Technology’s Twenty20s emerging leaders in aerospace in 2016.

Prior to graduate studies at UMD, Petro worked on the MAVEN Mars Orbiter, and James Webb Space Telescope, and Hubble Space Telescope missions at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Elaine is passionate about diversity and inclusion in STEM and is a founding member of the national Women of Aeronautics and Astronautics organization. Outside of academia, Elaine enjoys hiking, snowboarding, cycling, and keeps busy with two beagle-mix rescue dogs and a new baby.

Event Date: March 30, 2023