MIT lab developing ion microthrusters for cubesats

October 28, 2013 by Bob Yirka report
Lozano holds a prototype of a microthruster, developed to propel small satellites in space. Credit: Bryce Vickmark

(Phys.org) —The MIT News Office is reporting that the University's Space Power and Propulsion Laboratory (headed by Paulo Lozano) is seeing progress with micro-sized thruster design to power the next generation of self-propelled cubsats. Because traditional combustion or electric engines don't scale down well, the team has been testing ion electrospray thrusters that can be made as small as a postage stamp.

For most of their still relatively short history, satellites have been extremely expensive ventures, both to design and build and to launch into . With the miniaturization of electronics, however, scientists see a way to reduce the costs associated with sending craft into orbit, and also for sending them into outer space—cubesats—satellites that are tiny versions of the older models. They range in size from a shoebox to a Rubix cube. The current versions are sent aloft (sans engine) as part of a cargo load carrying other bigger equipment and remain orbiting the planet for a short time, till gravity pulls them back down. To get more out of their investment, scientists would like to put an engine on the little satellites so that they could stay in orbit, or even be sent to other parts of the solar system. Current research has centered around plasma or colloid thrusters. The researchers at MIT believe that ion thrusters are the better bet. Their idea is to use solar power to generate a charge to electrify a very small amount of liquid propellant—releasing an ion stream through a nozzle—generating just enough thrust to change the course of a cubesat or push it forward. Four of the would be sufficient to provide both attitude control and propulsion.

Scientists believe it might be possible in the near future to send an entire fleet of cubesats into space for the amount of money it currently takes to send just one. In addition to designing tiny engines for them, engineers have also been hard at work designing other components necessary for fully utilizing such a satellite—one such example is the recently developed (also at MIT) inflatable antennae that greatly extends their range. Some suggest cubesats may even provide the long-sought solution to cleaning up space junk.

Paulo Lozano. Credit: Bryce Vickmark

Explore further: Powering cube satellites

Related Stories

Powering cube satellites

February 3, 2010

Right now, 10 to 15 Rubik's Cube-sized satellites are orbiting high above Earth. Known as cube satellites, or "CubeSats," the devices help researchers conduct simple space observations and measure characteristics of Earth’s ...

ArduSat-1 and ArduSat-X CubeSats launched into space

August 8, 2013

(Phys.org) —Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has successfully launched an H-2B cargo rocket into space—a portion of which is bound for a rendezvous with the International Space Station. After it docks, two CubeSats—ArduSat-1 ...

Inflatable antennae could give CubeSats greater reach

September 6, 2013

The future of satellite technology is getting small—about the size of a shoebox, to be exact. These so-called "CubeSats," and other small satellites, are making space exploration cheaper and more accessible: The minuscule ...

Recommended for you

New Horizons team selects potential Kuiper Belt flyby target

August 29, 2015

NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system. The destination is a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits ...

Prawn Nebula: Cosmic recycling

September 2, 2015

Dominating this image is part of the nebula Gum 56, illuminated by the hot bright young stars that were born within it. For millions of years stars have been created out of the gas in this nebula, material which is later ...

Image: Hubble sees a youthful cluster

August 31, 2015

Shown here in a new image taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) on board the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is the globular cluster NGC 1783. This is one of the biggest globular clusters in the Large Magellanic ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.