Penny-Sized Thrusters Developed To Propel Satellites [VIDEO]

By Amir Khan on August 20, 2012 9:07 AM EDT

Penny Thrusters
In the near future, satellites could be powered by tiny thrusters the size of pennies, according to new research presented at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Joint Propulsion Conference. (Photo: MIT/M. Scott Brauer)

In the near future, satellites could be powered by tiny thrusters the size of pennies, according to new research presented at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Joint Propulsion Conference. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a tiny propulsion engine they say can power the smallest satellites in space.

The devices are a departure from current satellite thrusters, which are a jumble of valves, pipes and tanks. Instead, the thrusters are small, flat squares -- much like a computer chip -- which are covered with 500 microscopic tips that emit tiny ion beams. When all of the tips are fired at the same time, the thrusters can power a shoebox-sized satellite.

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"They're so small that you can put several [thrusters] on a vehicle," Paulo Lozano, device creator and an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said in a statement. "[You can use them to] not only move to change its orbit, but do other interesting things - like turn and roll."

Timothy Graves, manager of electric propulsion and plasma science at Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, Calif., who was not involved in the development of the thruster, said the size, cost and power of the thruster makes it a potentially promising device.

"Normally, propulsion systems have significant infrastructure associated with propellant feed lines, valves [and] complex power conditioning systems," Graves said in a statement. Additionally, the postage-stamp size of this thruster makes it easy to implement in comparison to other, larger propulsion systems."

The thrusters are powered by capillary action. Ionic liquid is sucked up by smaller and smaller pores into the tops of the thruster's tips. Then, when a voltaic charge is passed through, ionic beams are released, generating 50 newtons of force. While that would only be enough to shred a piece of paper on Earth, it's enough to power a small satellite in space, Lozano said.

The thrusters could also solve the problem of space litter. More than two dozen nanosatellites, known as CubeSats, each roughly the size of a Rubik's cube, orbit Earth. CubeSats are cheap and easy to assemble, and since they only weigh approximately 3 pounds each, a rocket can carry several without needing additional fuel.

However, the CubeSats come with a drawback -- since they lack a propulsion system, they are usually left to simply orbit Earth once their mission is up until they burn up in the lower atmosphere.

"These satellites could stay in space forever as trash," says Lozano said. "This trash could collide with other satellites. ... You could basically stop the Space Age with just a handful of collisions."

However, by equipping the CubeSats with his thruster, you could launch them into higher orbit, which would minimize the risk of collision.

Lozano also said that in the future, he envisions satellites outfitted with several microthrusters, each oriented in a different direction. When the satellite needs to move, solar panels would activate the correct thruster. In addition, rows of the thrusters could act as a rudder for large satellites as well.

"Just like solar panels you can aim at the sun, you can point the thrusters in any direction you want, and then thrust," Lozano says. "That gives you a lot of flexibility. That's pretty cool."

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