Fail-safe Cold Cathode Ionizer
Award last edited on: 1/18/2023

Sponsored Program
Awarding Agency
Total Award Amount
Award Phase
Solicitation Topic Code
Principal Investigator
Jonathan Rameau

Company Information

Physical Sciences Inc (AKA: PSI Technology~PLCC2 LLC)

20 New England Business Center
Andover, MA 01810
   (978) 689-0003
Location: Single
Congr. District: 03
County: Essex

Phase I

Contract Number: 80NSSC21C0112
Start Date: 5/5/2021    Completed: 11/19/2021
Phase I year
Phase I Amount
NASA has expressed a need for advanced neutral particle ionizers to enable the next-generation of neutral particle detectors such as mass spectrometers for the study of Earth-Sun interactions and planetary atmospheres. To fulfil this need, Physical Sciences Inc. (PSI) proposes to develop a fail-safe field emission-based cold cathode ionizer for use in space-based instrumentation. The cold cathode ionizer features ultra-low electron extraction voltages down to 2 V, emission current densities up to A/cm2 across mm2 emission surfaces, instantaneous switching and negligible thermal load. A unique property of PSI’s proposed cold cathode ionizer is its extreme resistance to the most common failure modes associated with field emission devices. The device is designed with recovery from mechanical and thermal shock as well as resilience against exposure to debris or contamination that might be encountered during its service lifetime. The slow degradation of materials and surfaces encountered in space are inherently compensated for in the design. In Phase I of the program, PSI will demonstrate the principle of the ionizer, raising its technology readiness level (TRL) from 2 to 3. The cathode fabrication process will be developed and cathodes integrated into a demonstration device for evaluation of critical components and operating parameters. Phase I will culminate in production of a detailed preliminary design for a flight-worthy prototype ionizer. In Phase II, ionizer requirements and capabilities will be finalized. A flight-worthy prototype will be constructed and evaluated. The Phase II program will be exited with the ionizer at TRL 6 and with the prototype delivered to NASA for further evaluation. Following Phase II, PSI will work with NASA to identify opportunities to incorporate the new enabling technology into instrumentation for upcoming missions such as Geospace Dynamics Coupling (GDC), and opportunities for NASA-sponsored technology demonstration flights. Potential NASA Applications (Limit 1500 characters, approximately 150 words): The proposed solution for a cold cathode-based ionizer will find its widest use as a component in mass spectrometers destined for planetary exploration and study. These include the study of Earth, its interaction with the sun and the effects of space weather on its upper atmosphere. It will also find use in missions to sample the watery plumes of the Ocean Wolds such as Europa and Enceladus. Similar capability will enhance efforts to study Mars, Titan and other planets and moons, possible watery plumes or their atmospheres. Potential Non-NASA Applications (Limit 1500 characters, approximately 150 words): Large area cold cathode ionizers have applications in display technology and medical imaging techniques such as time- and spatially-resolved X-ray imaging, which take advantage of electron beam pixilation and instant switching without external beam blanking components. Terrestrial and defense-related mass spectroscopy and communications applications will benefit as well. Duration: 6

Phase II

Contract Number: 80NSSC22CA100
Start Date: 4/27/2022    Completed: 4/26/2024
Phase II year
Phase II Amount
In response to NASA’s call for development of enabling technologies for space exploration instrumentation such as mass spectrometers, Physical Sciences Inc. (PSI) is developing a novel cold cathode ionizer. The ionizer, which is being optimized for application to Heliophysics mass spectroscopy in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) combines exceptionally low power consumption, high output current densities, high reliability and an extremely compact form factor. PSI’s cold cathode ionizer is also uniquely resistant to degradation by the hyperthermal atomic oxygen present in LEO. The properties render PSI’s cold cathode technology uniquely suited to use near Earth, particularly those flown on cubesats and similar small spacecraft platforms. In Phase I of the development program, PSI successfully demonstrated the operating principle behind the cold cathode electron gun, yielding stable emission current densities over 60 mA/cm2 in a breadboard device. In Phase II, PSI will optimize the field emission technology while shrinking and ruggedizing the devices. The Phase II program will culminate in delivery of a flight-capable cold cathode ionizer to NASA meeting or exceeding every key performance parameter required for integration into cubesat-based mass spectrometers for Heliophysics applications. Potential NASA Applications (Limit 1500 characters, approximately 150 words): Mass spectrometers for planetary and space environment studies, particularly the mini time-of-flight mass spectrometers being developed for Heliophysics applications. Future applications in instrumentation for outer worlds and their moons, as well as any instrument requiring high flux electron beams. Potential Non-NASA Applications (Limit 1500 characters, approximately 150 words): Space Force personnel have expressed interest in the ionizer technology for LEO and sub-orbital mass spectrometer applications, as well as for other applications. There are also applications to electron accelerators and to x-ray generators for applications such as time and space resolved x-ray sources for medical imagers. Duration: 24