The thrusters are incredibly small and can move a two-pound satellite. (Photo : MIT)
MIT researchers have come up with a small thruster no larger than a penny that can be used to propel satellites without any of the bulky equipment that accompanies current satellites. Professor Paulo Lozano from MIT developed the technology which uses ion discharges to provide thrust.
"They're so small that you can put several [thrusters] on a vehicle," Lozano says. The thrusters would allow a satellite to "not only move to change its orbit, but do other interesting things - like turn and roll."
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The thrusters look like small computer chips. Each one is covered in 500 incredibly tiny tips that emit ions when electrical voltage is applied. In the frictionless, vacuum of space, this is enough to create motion.The thrusters emit 50 micronewtons of force, which is enough in space to move a two-pound satellite.
When used in conjunction with solar panels, the thrusters could provide an efficient movement system for small satellites known as CubeSats.
CubeSats are tiny satellites that are slightly bigger than Rubik's cube and weigh under three pounds. Their small size makes them easy to load onto other rockets and drop off in space. The only problem is that these CubeSats don't have their own propulsion and usually end up orbiting the Earth passively before they burn up in the atmosphere.
If they were deployed at higher orbits, the CubeSats could create too much debris.
"These satellites could stay in space forever as trash," says Lozano. "This trash could collide with other satellites. ... You could basically stop the Space Age with just a handful of collisions."
But with the help of these microthrusters, CubeSats could be controlled and might become more important in the future.