The characteristics of supersonic ion beams from the alternative low power hybrid ion engine (ALPHIE) are discussed. This simple concept of a DC powered plasma accelerator that only needs one electron source for both neutral gas ionization and ion beam neutralization is also examined. The plasma production and space charge neutralization processes are thus coupled in this plasma thruster that has a total DC power consumption of below 450 W, and uses xenon or argon gas as a propellant. The operation parameters of the plasma engine are studied in the laboratory in connection with the ion energy distribution function obtained with a retarding-field energy analyzer. The ALPHIE plasma beam expansion produces a mesothermal plasma flow with two-peaked ion energy distribution functions composed of low and high speed ion groups. The characteristic drift velocities of the fast ion groups, in the range 36.6–43.5 Km/s, are controlled by the acceleration voltage. These supersonic speeds are higher than the typical ion sound velocities of the low energy ion group produced by the expansion of the plasma jet. The temperatures of the slow ion population lead to ion Debye lengths longer than the electron Debye lengths. Furthermore, the electron impact ionization can coexist with collisional ionization by fast ions downstream the grids. Finally, the performance characteristics and comparisons with other plasma accelerator schemes are also discussed.

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