Electronics for a Versatile and Robust Retarding Potential Analyzer for Nano-Satellite Platforms

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Virginia Tech


A retarding potential analyzer (RPA) is an instrument that, when mounted on a satellite in low-Earth orbit, makes in-situ measurements of ion density, temperature and speed relative to the satellite frame. The instrument works by changing the voltage on one of a set of grids and measuring a corresponding current generated by ions flowing through the grid, generating a function of current vs. voltage called an I-V curve. Traditionally, the size and power requirements of retarding potential analyzers has limited their use to larger satellites. In this thesis, the electrical design and basic testing of a retarding potential analyzer for use on resource- limited cubesat platforms are described.

The mechanical design of the retarding potential analyzer is first described, and the requirements of the electrical design are presented. The electrical requirements are based on both the characteristics of the ionosphereic flight environment, and on the size and power requirements typical of the small cubesat platforms for which the instrument is intended.

The electrical hardware is then described in detail. The digital design is reviewed as well, including the instrument's operating modes, command and data structure, and timing scheme.

Test data showing the basic functionality of the instrument are then presented. Bench tests validate the design by confirming its ability to control voltages and measure small currents. End-to-end tests were also performed in a vacuum chamber to mimic the ionospheric environment. These data are presented to show the ability of the RPA to meet or exceed its design specifications.



retarding potential analyzer, cubesat, instrument electrical design