Catherine Nachtigal

Catherine Nachtigal
cnacht 'at'
Degrees Pursued: Masters
Research Interests: electrospray thruster performance, capillary electrospray thrusters, nanomanufacturing, fabrication


Catherine (Cat) is a NASA NSTGRO fellow and Masters student in the Space Propulsion Lab. She is from Chatham, NJ and received her B.S. in mechanical engineering from Rutgers University in 2022 and joined SPL in Fall 2022. Her masters, and eventually doctoral, research focuses on the design, fabrication, and testing of a “pixel” electrospray thruster, consisting of a flat-panel capillary based electrospray thruster device with an integrated, fuse-separated extractor grid.

Research Summary:

Electrospray thruster arrays are a promising technology for scalable electric space propulsion with potential for high efficiency and specific impulse in very compact packages. Currently, these arrays consist of a series of microscale sharp structures protruding from a single panel. These structures transport an ionic liquid, which serves as propellant. A voltage is applied between the conductive ionic liquid and a downstream electrode aperture, resulting in the formation of a small, electrified meniscus from which ion beams are emitted, thus producing thrust. These emitter tips are very small, fragile, and must be precisely and repeatably manufactured to produce consistent performance and long lifetime. Inconsistencies in the materials and manufacturing can cause individual tips to fail, potentially causing the entire array to malfunction. To remedy this and make electrospray thrusters a more robust and reliable propulsion device, these emitter tips can instead be replaced by a series of “pixel” emitters, which would consist of individualized wells embedded in a dielectric material. These wells can then be surrounded by a small ring coated with a conductive material to serve as the extractor electrode. Individual extractors can then be connected to one another through thin, conductive strips, serving as fuses. Upon the shortage of a single emitter, the fuse would disintegrate, allowing the rest of the “pixel” emitters to continue firing, effectively solving the lifetime issue often associated with current electrospray thrusters. These “pixels” would function as pixels on an LED screen, where the shortage of a pixel on the screen does not prevent the rest of the screen from lighting up. Further, these arrays could instead be constructed out of more flexible materials, allowing them to be placed onto a variety of surfaces.