MIT Develops Microthrusters for CubeSats
Not every satellite is a massive hunk of plastic and metal spinning in the sky. Constructing those kinds of satellites is very expensive and can be more machine than is needed for many different projects. Organizations with smaller amounts of funding have turned to one-use satellites, called CubeSats or nanosatellites, that are (no surprise) about the size of a Rubik’s Cube.
Most CubeSats are launched into low orbit where they perform the function for which they were intended before suffering orbital decay and burning up in the lower atmosphere. Some two dozen CubeSats are regularly in orbit around the Earth.
CubeSats are so small, no room is given over to any sort of guidance system. As the use of CubeSats increases, some are bound to be launched into higher orbits where they will eventually become little more than space trash (already a problem) and have the potential to collide with other, larger satellites doing serious damage.
Researchers at MIT hope to nip this potential problem in the bud. A group from MIT’s Space Propulsion Laboratory and Microsystems Technology Laboratory, led by Paulo Lozano, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, has designed microthrusters that are small enough to fit on CubeSats.
“They’re so small that you can put several [thrusters] on a vehicle,” said Lozano. A CubeSat with multiple microthrusters could “not only move to change its orbit, but do other interesting things — like turn and roll,” he added.
Each microthruster is about the size and shape of a microchip and has 500 microscopic tips that can emit tiny ion beams. This creates thrust from a small cloud of charged particles that can help steer nanosatellites. The bottom of the thrusters contains liquid plasma of free-floating ions that act as “fuel.”
“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.”
Below you’ll find a video about the microthrusters.