Penny for Your Rockets: Microthrusters Powered by Ion Beams Could Propel Satellites Through Space

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Imagine rockets so small you could fit them through a piggybank slot. Imagine those rockets jetting microscopic beams of ions drawn from a reservoir of liquid plasma. Now imagine — or don’t, because they’re not imaginary — that they’re poised to power the smallest satellites yet made through space.

Large satellites come with correspondingly large and complex propulsion systems: a sizable rocket to move the satellite into position as well as multiple thrusters designed to keep it there. But according to MIT News, MIT aeronautics and astronautics professor Paulo Lozano has designed “a flat, compact square — much like a computer chip — covered with 500 microscopic tips that, when stimulated with voltage, emit tiny beams of ions.”

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And that, says Lozano, is enough to power cube-like “nanosatellites” — MIT News compares them to the size of a Rubik’s Cube — allowing them to “not only move to change [their] orbit, but do other interesting things — like turn and roll.” Just like a much larger satellite, in other words.

“We live in a great age of discovery,” says Lozano in the MIT News Office promotional video below. “We are learning so many things about our universe. We are learning so many things about the planets and so on. But for that, we need to take a big spacecraft and look at things up close.”

But big spacecraft are pricey, and in these days of lean and leaner, it’s all about downsizing. At this point we already have upwards of two dozen “CubeSats” circling our planet, each one weighing less than three pounds. They’re cheap to build and easy enough to get into space, but once there, they lack propulsion systems to maneuver, eventually plummeting back to earth and disintegrating during reentry.

That means launching them into higher orbits to increase their “shelf life,” but according to Lozano, with so many satellites eventually spinning uncontrolled, you’re creating an increasingly hazardous space debris field. The more uncontrolled space junk floating around, the more dangerous orbital navigation through it.

With Lozano’s penny-sized microthrusters onboard, these satellites could help mitigate the space debris problem, driving themselves back into the atmosphere to burn up on command, for instance — even glomming onto other satellites and pushing them down to a fiery end.

The technology is still in the proof of concept phase, but if everything comes together, its potential benefits for satellite construction as well as space exploration — principally the reduction in power consumption and propulsion system size — sounds promising.


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