New motor can cut space exploration costs

Apr 20, 2012
New motor can cut space exploration costs

(Phys.org) -- A European team of researchers led by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland has developed a prototype of a new, ultra-compact motor that will enable small satellites to journey beyond Earth's orbit. The objective of this new motor is to make space exploration less expensive. The result is an outcome of the MICROTHRUST ('Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)-based electric micropropulsion for small spacecraft to enable robotic space exploration and space science') project, which is supported under the Space Theme of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), to the tune of EUR 1.9 million.

The compact weights only a few hundred grams and is specifically designed to propel small satellites, weighing from 1 to 100 kilograms. The conventional thruster can change orbit around our planet and travel to more distant destinations, but it is usually used for large and expensive spacecraft. The researchers say their prototype will probably be used on CleanSpace One, a satellite currently being developed at EPFL that will clean up space debris, as well as on OLFAR, a swarm of Dutch nanosatellites able to record ultra-low radio-frequency signals on the far side of the Moon.

The prototype weighs only around 200 grams, with the fuel and control electronics included. The motor can be mounted on satellites as small as 10 x 10 x 10 centimeters. It is also very efficient.

'At the moment, nanosatellites are stuck in their orbits. Our goal is to set them free,' said Herbert Shea, the head of EPFL's Microsystems for Space Technologies Laboratory and the coordinator of the MICROTHRUST project.

Research into the development of small satellites has intensified in recent times, due mostly to the low cost of production and launch. The price tag for the small satellites is around USD 500 million; the price for larger ones runs into the hundreds of millions. The problem with nanosatellites lay in the lack of an efficient propulsion system ... until now.

The new mini motor does not run on combustible fuel but rather on an 'ionic' liquid, and in this project, it is a liquid chemical compound, EMI-BF4, used as both a solvent and an electrolyte. It is made up of ions, electrically charged molecules, which are extracted from the liquid and then ejected to produce thrust. The fuel is expelled, not burnt.

'We calculated that in order to reach lunar orbit, a 1-kilogram nanosatellite with our motor would travel for about 6 months and consume 100 millilitres of fuel,' said Muriel Richard, a scientist in EPFL's Swiss Space Center.

'Our prototype still has a few flow problems at the nozzle extremities, which could cause short-circuits,' Dr Shea concluded.

Researchers from the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom, members of the MICROTHRUST consortium, also contributed to this study.

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User comments : 13

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DarkHorse66
5 / 5 (7) Apr 20, 2012
"The prototype weighs only around 200 grams, with the fuel and control electronics included. The motor can be mounted on satellites as small as 10 x 10 x 10 square cubic metres. It is also very efficient."

I'm loving the concept of such a small motor being able to propel up to 100kg. But '10 x 10 x 10 square cubic metres'!!! What is that supposed to mean??? A square is 2D, while a cube is 3D...Also, if you are giving the values of the individual lengths (here 1D, I'm presuming), you don't give the units in higher dimensions. The author of this article REALLY needs to pay attention to the following:
http://wiki.answe...ter_cube
Maybe we are talking about a 6 dimensional object... ;)

Best Regards, DH66
mdr
5 / 5 (3) Apr 20, 2012
"Research into the development of small satellites has intensified in recent times, due mostly to the low cost of production and launch. The price tag for the small satellites is around USD 500 million; the price for larger ones runs into the hundreds of millions."
Lurker2358
not rated yet Apr 20, 2012
The compact motor weights only a few hundred grams and is specifically designed to propel small satellites, weighing from 1 to 100 kilograms.

...

The motor can be mounted on satellites as small as 10 x 10 x 10 square cubic metres.


Seems like some severe loss of concentration here. I'm not aware of any 100kg satellite of the size of 10^2 or 10^3 meters.

Also, I thought the Europeans had been working on a design for an ultra-efficient electric solar sail which used no "fuel" except sunlight and solar wind?

I had tinkered around with that in the past and found them to be unimaginably powerful compared to anything else man has ever made.

In fact, the only problem with a solar sail as far as exploration of the solar system, is how to stop the damn thing once it gets going, because maximum velocity is nearly as high as Galactic escape velocity...
shockr
not rated yet Apr 20, 2012
I noticed that too mdr. USD 500 million already is in the 'hundreds of millions' Doh. Nitpicking aside, sounds like a great idea. 6 months to the moon on 100ml of ionic juice! I can imagine that these would be better suited for the trash collection duties than a trip to the moon though.
simonl
5 / 5 (4) Apr 20, 2012
The motor can be mounted on satellites as small as 10 x 10 x 10 square cubic metres.

I guess it meant 10 x 10 x 10 cm, a common micro-satellite size.

Let's not get hung up over 9 orders of magnitude.
DarkHorse66
3 / 5 (1) Apr 20, 2012
... of the size of 10^2 or 10^3 meters.

Careful, Lurker. That's displaying the same slackness with the use of units as the author of the article. If I were to take what you are presenting at face value, I would be reading the following into it: 10^2 metres = 100 metres LONG, and 10^3 metres = 1000 metres = 1 kilometre long!!! I'd love to see a little satellite THAT long :) Those are 1D units, i.e. distance or length. The basic maths/geometric representation of a 1D object is the humble line. A point is classified as having 0D (zero). A flat shape or the area within, is 2D. A volume is 3D.
From the article, I am inferring that each length is 10 metres, therefore the volume (3D) is 10^3 m^3. That would be the correct notation for saying 'metres cubed'. Apart from that little 'flaw', I too would love to see more advances with solar sails. That would bring down an awful lot of cost, especially with escalating costs of any fuel. :)
Best Regards, DH66.

Lurker2358
5 / 5 (1) Apr 20, 2012
therefore the volume (3D) is 10^3 m^3. That would be the correct notation for saying 'metres cubed'.


That is correct. I appears I was lazy with my own units representations as well. I guess I should have had my cup of coffee earlier or something.

In any case, there is no 100kg satellite that big. It would need to be constructed from graphene or nano-tubes to be that big at such a low weight, and clearly we haven't heard of any such project.

There must be some sort of units error in the article.
tekram
5 / 5 (1) Apr 20, 2012
30.03.12 - The first prototype of a new, ultra-compact motor
go to the actu dot epfl dot ch /news /getting-to-the-moon-on-drops-of-fuel/

The motor, designed to be mounted on satellites as small as 10x10x10 cm3, is extremely compact but highly efficient. The prototype weighs only about 200 grams, including the fuel and control electronics.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.3 / 5 (36) Apr 20, 2012
The development of Technology is growing ever more distant from American shores.
jamesrm
5 / 5 (2) Apr 20, 2012
sounds like modified inkjet technology?
tgoldman
3 / 5 (2) Apr 20, 2012
"10 x 10 x 10 square cubic metres. " SQUARE?
THOUSAND?
"The price tag for the small satellites is around USD 500 million; the price for larger ones runs into the hundreds of millions."

WHERE ARE YOUR EDITORS WHEN THEY ARE NEEDED?
Husky
5 / 5 (3) Apr 20, 2012
they are next to the CAPS LOCK mr late to the party...
nejc2008
1 / 5 (1) Apr 21, 2012
What is better than a good laugh in the morning :))n.

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