Getting to the moon on drops of fuel: An ionic motor for small satellites

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  1. Matthew
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    Matthew Blue dog all the way!

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    Getting to the moon on drops of fuel: An ionic motor for small satellites
    March 29, 2012

    The first prototype of a new, ultra-compact motor that will allow small satellites to journey beyond Earth's orbit is just making its way out of the EPFL laboratories where it was built. The goal of the micro motor: to drastically reduce the cost of space exploration.

    Imagine reaching the Moon using just a tenth of a liter of fuel. With their ionic motor, MicroThrust, EPFL scientists and their European partners are making this a reality and ushering in a new era of low-cost space exploration. The complete thruster weighs just a few hundred grams and is specifically designed to propel small (1-100 kg) satellites, which it enables to change orbit around the Earth and even voyage to more distant destinations – functions typically possible only for large, expensive spacecraft. The just-released prototype is expected to employed on CleanSpace One, a satellite under development at EPFL that is designed to clean up space debris, and on OLFAR, a swarm of Dutch nanosatellites that will record ultra-low radio-frequency signals on the far side of the Moon.

    The motor, designed to be mounted on satellites as small as 10x10x10 cm3, is extremely compact but highly efficient. The prototype weighs only about 200 grams, including the fuel and control electronics.

    "At the moment, nanosatellites are stuck in their orbits. Our goal is to set them free," explains Herbert Shea, coordinator of the European MicroThrust project and director of EPFL's Microsystems for Space Technologies Laboratory.

    Small satellites are all the rage right now because their manufacturing and launch costs are relatively low – about half a million dollars, compared to conventional satellites that run into the hundreds of millions. But nanosatellites currently lack an efficient propulsion system that would render them truly autonomous and thus able to carry out exploration or observation missions.

    A motor that doesn't burn fuel

    Instead of a combustible fuel, the new mini motor runs on an "ionic" liquid, in this case the chemical compound EMI-BF4, which is used as a solvent and an electrolyte. It is composed of electrically charged molecules (like ordinary table salt) called ions, except that this compound is liquid at room temperature. The ions are extracted from the liquid and then ejected by means of an electric field to generate thrust. This is the principle behind the ionic motor: fuel is not burned, it is expelled.

    Getting to the moon on drops of fuel: An ionic motor for small satellites
     
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  2. uscitizen
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    uscitizen Senior Member

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    Politics could power an ironic motor for several light years.
     
  3. daveman
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    daveman Diamond Member

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    Schweeeet. Exhaust velocity of 40K km/hr -- that's 25,000 miles per hour.

    That so rocks.
     

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