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Posted: Nov 09, 2012
Propulsion chips for miniature satellites
(Nanowerk News) Miniature satellites weighing under 100 kilograms (kg) are a less expensive and easier-to-launch alternative to large spacecraft. EU-funded scientists are developing a ‘thruster-on-a-chip’ to provide the necessary boost.
The potential for discovery provided by space exploration is a source of excitement to those both within and external to the planetary science community. However, the cost of space exploration missions is great and limits the research that can be successfully moved from theory to practice.
Complex electronics and scientific equipment together with their structural housings impose significant propulsion requirements and expense. In an effort to curb costs, governments are pursuing the use of much smaller satellites that are cheaper and faster to build and launch. Microsatellites are in the range of 10–100 kg and nanosatellites 1–10 kg.
European researchers are making such miniature satellites even more cost effective and flexible by developing a micro-fabricated propulsion system with EU funding of the Microthrust project.
Advanced propulsion will allow large changes in orbit by miniature satellites that are currently not possible, facilitating exploration missions that have remained on the drawing board.
Colloid thrusters that extract droplets from a liquid and accelerate them away from the spacecraft to provide thrust have been studied since the 1960s. However, low thrust levels were prohibitive and other propulsion systems were pursued. The Microthrust system integrates two important and mature technologies in a new way to provide the propulsion previously lacking.
Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) produced by micromachining technology have reached maturity over the 30 years since inception. MEMS can incorporate very large arrays of very tiny and densely packed emitters, greatly increasing the efficiency of colloid thrusters.
Microthrust aims to deliver MEMS thrusters chips and associated technologies to yield a thruster module whose mass and volume is 90 % smaller than those of existing systems.
Reducing costs dramatically will make space exploration possible for universities and small companies in addition to making it easier for governments and large corporations.
Thus, Microthrust technology will have important impact on the number and types of Solar System exploration missions that can be realised as well as on levelling the playing field by encouraging new teams to play.