A penny-sized rocket thruster may soon power the smallest satellites in space. The device, designed by Paulo Lozano, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, bears little resemblance to today’s bulky satellite engines, which are laden with valves, pipes and heavy propellant tanks. Instead, Lozano’s design is a flat, compact square — much like a computer chip — covered with 500 microscopic tips that, when stimulated with voltage, emit tiny beams of ions. Together, the array of spiky tips creates a small puff of charged particles that can help propel a shoebox-sized satellite forward.
“They’re so small that you can put several [thrusters] on a vehicle,” Lozano says. He adds that a small satellite outfitted with several microthrusters could “not only move to change its orbit, but do other interesting things — like turn and roll.”
Mini ion thrusters are manufactured using micro-manufacturing techniques. This image shows an example of the different parts comprising a thruster. The finalized device is at the bottom right, measuring 1 cm by 1 cm and 2 mm in thickness.
Photo: M. Scott Brauer
These propulsions systems might be useful for the 20 kilogram Planetary Resources telescopes. Although converting the stationary Planetary Resources telescopes to prospecting would require quite a bit of fuel even for ion drive engines.
Engineering propulsion systems for small satellites could solve the problem of space junk: CubeSats could propel down to lower orbits to burn up, or even act as galactic garbage collectors, pulling retired satellites down to degrade in Earth’s atmosphere. However, traditional propulsion systems have proved too bulky for nanosatellites, leaving little space on the vessels for electronics and communication equipment.
In contrast, Lozano’s microthruster design adds little to a satellite’s overall weight. The microchip is composed of several layers of porous metal, the top layer of which is textured with 500 evenly spaced metallic tips. The bottom of the chip contains a small reservoir of liquid — a “liquid plasma” of free-floating ions that is key to the operation of the device.
To explain how the thruster works, Lozano invokes the analogy of a tree: Water from the ground is pulled up a tree through a succession of smaller and smaller pores, first in the roots, then up the trunk, and finally through the leaves, where sunshine evaporates the water as gas. Lozano’s microthruster works by a similar capillary action: Each layer of metal contains smaller and smaller pores, which passively suck the ionic liquid up through the chip, to the tops of the metallic tips.
The group engineered a gold-coated plate over the chip, then applied a voltage, generating an electric field between the plate and the thruster’s tips. In response, beams of ions escaped the tips, creating a thrust. The researchers found that an array of 500 tips produces 50 micronewtons of force — an amount of thrust that, on Earth, could only support a small shred of paper. But in zero-gravity space, this tiny force would be enough to propel a two-pound satellite.
Lozano and co-author Dan Courtney also found that very small increases in voltage generated a big increase in force among the thruster’s 500 tips, a promising result in terms of energy efficiency.