Tiny Ion Thrusters The Size Of Lego Bricks Could Launch Small Satellites Into Space

Researchers are hoping tiny thrusters that can be held between your fingertips will transform propulsion systems used to launch satellites into space. Scaling down propulsion systems and satellites could lead to a cheaper alternative for space research.

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The tiny ion thruster is being developed by Paulo Lozano, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and will be used to propel small satellites around Earth. The microsatellites, or “CubeSats,” would be much smaller than satellites currently used and could be developed to travel through space with these tiny thrusters.

Lozano, who also serves as director of MIT's Space Propulsion Lab, said the ion thruster would run on solar power and the thrust would be created by electrifying propellant onboard, creating ion, any molecule that doesn't have the same number of protons and electrons, particles. These ions would be ejected from a nozzle, creating enough thrust to power the small satellite, roughly the size of a shoebox, according to the researchers.

“The goal is to make [CubeSats] do most of the things we already do with big satellites, except in a less expensive way,” he said in a statement.

Cutting costs has been a motivating factor for private companies, such as SpaceX, and agencies such as NASA. Commercializing spaceflight could help reduce the cost of launching manned missions in the future while NASA is exploring ways to build satellites in space.

Micro-thrusters could be developed to send small probes deep into space, covering the same distance of conventional probes, to Jupiter and other parts of the solar system. “Imagine what would happen if you had these very small platforms," Lozano said. "Instead of launching one, you could launch 20 for the same price. And you could do as exciting science as you could with the big ones, like go to Europa [a moon of Jupiter]. Why not? The sky is the limit.” 

Lozano has been developing miniature thrusters for a few years at MIT, exploring different methods for the propulsion system, before designing, and refining, the ion thrusters. CubeSats aren't yet equipped with thrusters -- instead they float around Earth before burning up, but a propulsion system could increase the amount of time these small satellites can be used. Lozano hopes to send a few CubeSats attached with ion thrusters by the end of 2014.

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