Crowdfunding a plasma thruster for interplanetary cubesats

The CAT plasma thruster will propel a 5kg satellite into deep space, far beyond Earth orbit, at 1/1000th the cost of previous missions.

CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster (CAT) engine development: $200,000 Kickstarter. Has raised $42000 with 13 days to go
Funding from Kickstarter will be used to create a complete flight-qualified CubeSat with integrated CAT engine and tested as a final unit in the University of Michigan LVTF vacuum chamber.

Michigan University developers are working to complete and vacuum test a flight-qualified satellite with an integrated CAT. Through our existing partnerships with three NASA centers, the spacecraft will be launched into low Earth orbit and start its climb into deep space. The CAT engine is being developed at the University of Michigan’s Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory (PEPL). Our team also includes the state-of-the-art Michigan Exploration Laboratory (MXL), which has over six years of experience building and flying CubeSats.

Initial CAT engine testing will be performed in our lab on the ground and then in low Earth orbit (LEO) to validate the CAT engine’s performance and physics models developed by our team. Once these tests are completed, we will perform a series of spiral-out flight maneuvers to climb to higher and higher altitudes in order to escape the Earth.

Plasma thrusters have been used on satellites for decades but they have been large, bulky devices that weigh up to 10 kg (20 lbs) or more, suitable only for large satellites. Some examples include ion engines (Deep Space 1 and DAWN), Hall thrusters (SMART1, GEO-COMM sats), resistojets, and arcjets. The CAT design scales down previously demonstrated technology (see Hall Thrusters, VASIMR) to make it practical for CubeSats, with a thruster and power supply weight of less than 0.5 kg (1 lb). Most of the thruster components have been built and have been tested individually. With your help through Kickstarter, we will be assembling everything into one compact thruster unit for testing the integrated components in the lab, then in Earth orbit, and then interplanetary space far away from the gravitational pull of the Earth

The Michigan team says its system could fit inside one 10-centimeter-wide module of a three-unit CubeSat, and propel it at speeds of up to 10 kilometers per second. That would be enough to push the satellite at least a million kilometers from Earth, out of the planet’s gravitational grip.

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