A penny-sized rocket thruster may soon power the smallest satellites in space.
As small as a penny, these thrusters run on jets of ion beams.
The device, designed by Paulo Lozano, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, bears little resemblance to today’s bulky satellite engines, which are laden with valves, pipes and heavy propellant tanks. Instead, Lozano’s design is a flat, compact square — much like a computer chip — covered with 500 microscopic tips that, when stimulated with voltage, emit tiny beams of ions. Together, the array of spiky tips creates a small puff of charged particles that can help propel a shoebox-sized satellite forward.
“They’re so small that you can put several [thrusters] on a vehicle,” Lozano says. He adds that a small satellite outfitted with several microthrusters could “not only move to change its orbit, but do other interesting things — like turn and roll.”
Lozano and his group in MIT’s Space Propulsion Laboratory and Microsystems Technology Laboratory presented their new thruster array at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ recent Joint Propulsion Conference.
Cleaning up CubeSat clutter
Today, more than two dozen small satellites, called CubeSats, orbit Earth. Each is slightly bigger than a Rubik’s cube, and weighs less than three pounds. Their diminutive size classifies them as “nanosatellites,” in contrast with traditional Earth-monitoring behemoths. These petite satellites are cheap to assemble, and can be launched into space relatively easily: Since they weigh very little, a rocket can carry several CubeSats as secondary payload without needing extra fuel.
But these small satellites lack propulsion systems, and once in space, are usually left to passively spin in orbits close to Earth. After a mission concludes, the satellites burn up in the lower atmosphere.
Lozano says if CubeSats were deployed at higher orbits, they would take much longer to degrade, potentially creating space clutter. As more CubeSats are launched farther from Earth in the future, the resulting debris could become a costly problem.
“These satellites could stay in space forever as trash,” says Lozano, who is associate director of the Space Propulsion Laboratory. “This trash could collide with other satellites. … You could basically stop the Space Age with just a handful of collisions.”
Engineering propulsion systems for small satellites could solve the problem of space junk: CubeSats could propel down to lower orbits to burn up, or even act as galactic garbage collectors, pulling retired satellites down to degrade in Earth’s atmosphere. However, traditional propulsion systems have proved too bulky for nanosatellites, leaving little space on the vessels for electronics and communication equipment.
In contrast, Lozano’s microthruster design adds little to a satellite’s overall weight. The microchip is composed of several layers of porous metal, the top layer of which is textured with 500 evenly spaced metallic tips. The bottom of the chip contains a small reservoir of liquid — a “liquid plasma” of free-floating ions that is key to the operation of the device.
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