Exploiting outer space for material resources could eventually become a viable industry, but before that happens investors will want to see some concrete data on where expensive automated systems will be headed. Launching space exploration vessels is the best method to gather hard facts, but such spacecraft are expensive in their own right.
The University of Michigan (UM) has an idea with the potential to solve some of the costs of space exploration within our solar system. University scientists have developed a plasma thruster that can be attached to CubeSats that will enable the small satellites to escape Earth’s gravity and travel deeper into space. To fund the project, the research team has turned to Kickstarter in an attempt to tap the crowd funding scene for science.
CubeSats generally run in size between a Rubik’s Cube and a loaf of bread, and are sent into space piggybacked onto larger satellites. Unlike their larger brethren, CubeSats are designed with a single goal in mind, and are often used for scholarly research. At present, CubeSats are simply launched into orbit, where they perform the job for which they were designed before a decaying orbit sends them to a fiery demise.
UM’s plasma thruster would extend the reach of CubeSats beyond the Earth, sending them all over our solar system. CubeSats could be sent to investigate the potential of asteroids, examine planetary rings, or even be sent on a multi-year journey to check out the existence of water on various solar bodies. For an explanation of how the thruster works, we’ll turn to the project’s Kickstarter page.
First, the propellant will be injected from its storage container into the plasma discharge chamber, a quartz bottle that distributes the gas and contains the plasma. The gas is turned into a plasma by a radio frequency antenna that surrounds the chamber and launches a plasma wave known as a ‘helicon.’ The plasma is then launched out of the quartz bottle and guided by magnetic fields from extremely powerful permanent magnets. As the plasma escapes the CAT engine, this causes an equal and opposite thrust, pushing the satellite in the opposite direction.
Once in space, the CubeSat will extend solar panels to help charge up electronic equipment, onboard batteries, and the engine itself. UM is asking for a $200,000 investment from the community to, literally, get the project off the ground. Below you’ll find the Kickstarter video about the thruster project.