Monday, October 3, 2022

New electric motor for spacecraft first tested in orbit

For satellites orbiting the Earth, using electricity to ionize and push the xenon particles out makes them fly wherever they want. Although xenon atoms are readily ionized and heavy enough to create thrust, this gas is rare and expensive, not to mention difficult to store.

Thanks to new research, we will soon have an alternative. Enter iodine.

Full orbiting of the iodine gas satellite is now being carried out by space technology company ThrustMe, and the technology promises to lead to satellite propulsion systems that are more efficient and affordable than ever before.

The iodine electric motor works in a vacuum chamber. (ThrustMe)

“Iodine is significantly larger and cheaper than xenon, and it has the added advantage that it can be stored in a solid form without pressure,” says Dmitry Rafalsky, CTO and co-founder of ThrustMe.

While earlier ground tests of iodine engines were promising, its work in space is a clear sign that this could be the future of small spacecraft engines and that our space exploration could practically continue.

The team used iodine to fuel the 20 kg (44 lb) NPT30-I2-powered CubeSat satellite that launched on November 6, 2020. The maneuvers were performed successfully and iodine was also shown to provide higher ionization efficiency than xenon. …

In addition to the advantages we have already discussed, iodine-based systems can also be built in much smaller and simpler forms than current satellites: unlike xenon and other fuels, iodine can be stored on board in solid form before it will be converted to gas. so there is no need for bulky high pressure gas cylinders.

“The successful demonstration of the NPT30-I2 means we can move on to the next stage in the development of an iodine propulsion system,” says Rafalsky.

“In parallel with our testing in space, we have developed new solutions to improve performance and launched an extensive ground endurance testing campaign to further push the boundaries of this new technology.”

New electric motor for spacecraft first tested in orbitDiagram of the iodine engine. (Rafalsky et al., Nature, 2021)

With tens of thousands of satellites expected to be launched into orbit over the next decade, finding ways to make them as efficient and accessible as possible is key as we continue to explore and analyze the Earth and the universe around us.

Using iodine to make satellites more affordable, more efficient and compact has many potential advantages in how satellite constellations can be deployed, taught to avoid each other, and disposed of when their useful lives have come to an end.

Problems remain: iodine is highly corrosive, which means ceramic is required to protect satellite parts, and iodine motors are not as responsive as their xenon counterparts at this time. However, this is a big step forward for technology.

“The release of these historic results is important not only for ThrustMe, but for the space industry as a whole,” says ThrustMe CEO and co-founder Ane Aanesland.

“Having our results peer-reviewed and made publicly available gives the community added confidence and helps create an industry benchmark.”

Research published in Nature

Nation World News Desk
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