This month, we welcome Dr. Ben Jorns to the Aerospace Department faculty as an Assistant Professor. He will be serving as the Co-Director of the Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory (PEPL) with Dean of Engineering Alec Gallimore, bringing a specialization in non-linear plasma wave theory, electric propulsion, and optical diagnostics.
Ben Jorns’ interest in electric propulsion stemmed from an early interest in Star Trek technologies:
“In terms of space travel, we’ve barely left our own doorstep. Our deepest deep space probe, Voyager, is just leaving our solar system, and it will take nearly 70,000 years for it to reach our nearest neighbor star. To me, there’s something almost unfair about this. There are so many exciting and exotic destinations in space (dozens of goldilocks planets and counting) , but we can’t get there. We don’t have the technology. The fascinating thing about Star Trek is that with a push of a button, you can warp across the galaxy to explore. When I was an undergraduate, I wanted to help make that real. I remember reading a 1994 paper by Dr. Miguel Alcubierre that posited a solution to general relativity equations that allowed for faster than light travel; I e-mailed him asking how I could get into that field of research. He recommended that I get involved with more physically-realizable, cutting-edge propulsion work – and that led me to electric propulsion.”
Electric propulsion is an enabling technology for deep-space exploration: it has the best gas mileage of any propulsion system.- Ben Jorns
In the following years, Dr. Jorns positioned himself at this “cutting-edge.” He served as a doctoral
researcher for Princeton University’s Electric Propulsion and Plasma Dynamics Lab, a propulsion engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a lecturer for UCLA. Coming to PEPL, he looks forward to investigating and modeling fundamental processes:
“I hope to build on PEPL’s incredible reputation and experimental foundation to study fundamental processes [like plasma turbulence] that are still not fully understood in electric propulsion devices. Without understanding of these processes, it is extremely difficult to assess from first-principles their lifetime, capability, or stability. One of my major goals is to better understand these processes so that more useful simulations, [and consequently] more stable and long-lived thrusters, can be developed for in-space applications.”
In conjunction, Dr. Jorns looks forward to designing and implementing new thruster technologies:
“I will continue PEPL’s investigations into high-power Hall Thrusters, while also looking into some new concepts. Developing propulsion systems for small sats that have high delta-v capabilities is an enticing problem, and I hope to get [such devices] off the ground. I also plan to look into emerging technologies like field reverse configuration thrusters and magnetic nozzles.
Imaged on the left is an X3 200-kW class Hall Thruster developed by the University of Michigan. Dr. Jorns will work on this thruster with his students, Dean Gallimore, and Dr. J.P. Sheehan as part of a collaboration with NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Reflecting on electric propulsion’s connection to his early Star Trek aspirations:
“Electric propulsion is an enabling technology for deep-space exploration: it has the best gas mileage of any propulsion system. It has enabled missions like Dawn, the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission and the [newly-announced] Psyche mission. I’m working on the frontier of helping us get around space, and that’s what Stak Trek is all about. In terms of warp drive – I’m not sure. But we can dream.”