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CubeSats Miniature Satellites With Mini-Thrusters

CubeSats are small, Rubik's Cube-sized satellites that can help researchers conduct near-Earth space observations. They can cost as little as $40,000 to deploy, if they piggyback onto an already-scheduled launch.


(CubeSats Rubik's cube-sized satellites)

Paulo Lozano, the H.N. Slater Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, is designing a tiny propulsion system that could allow the satellites, which weigh about a kilogram and are used for tasks that don’t require precise orbit control, to travel great distances and perform more serious tasks, such as searching for planets outside our solar system. The technology, which is based on the process of extracting and accelerating charged ions, or atoms that have gained or lost an electron...

About the size of a computer chip, the mini-thruster design also overcomes the size constraints of chemical propulsion and other forms of electric propulsion because it does not require a bulky chamber to burn (chemical) or extract ions from (electric) the propellant.

Lozano’s design relies on electrospraying, a physics process that uses electricity to extract positive and negative ions from a liquid salt that is created in a laboratory and serves as the system’s propellant. The liquid contains no solvent, such as water, and can be charged electrically with no heat involved. Whereas other electric propulsion systems charge the ions in a chamber on the satellite, the ionic liquid in Lozano’s design has already been charged on the ground, which is why his system doesn’t need a chamber.

“Eventually, you’ll run out of propellant, but that is the benefit of electric propulsion because it accelerates so fast that you don’t need a lot of it,” he said. “No other electric propulsion system would be so compact and efficient at the same time.”

These small satellites, able to maneuver autonomously and fly independently, remind me of the buzz droids shown in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.


(Kenobi's ship covered with buzz droids)

See also this article on Pico Satellites designed to work in teams.

From MIT via Next Big Future.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 2/9/2010)

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