Tiny satellite ion rockets are poised to go to infinity and beyond

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Michigan Tech

Originally reported on by Allison Mills, Michigan Tech News.

We are currently bearing witness to a very distinct form of space race. As private companies such as SpaceX become more active than many government agencies, space travel is getting strangely democratized. There are talks of Stephen Hawking sending a tiny probe to Alpha Centauri, and the trend of satellites of the size of a shoe box is starting to pick up. And when a spacecraft is that small, avenues open for some ingenious solutions to thrust them forward.

One such solution has been developed by researchers at the University of Maryland and Michigan Technological University, who have operated a tiny satellite ion rocket under a microscope.

The rocket, called an electrospray thruster, is a drop of molten salt. When electricity is applied, it creates a field on the tip of the droplet, until ions begin streaming off the end. The force created by the rocket is less than the weight of a human hair, but in the vacuum of space it is enough to push a small object forward with a constant acceleration.

Obviously, we are currently talking about a scale significantly smaller than even a shoe box satellite. However, the discovered principle could be magnified by packing many of these tiny thrusters together, and potentially propelling spacecrafts to far reaches of space.

These thrusters are currently being tested on the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder, which hopes to poise objects in space so precisely that they would only be disturbed by gravitational waves.

But these droplet engines have a problem: sometimes they form needle-like spikes that disrupt the way the thruster works – they get in the way of the ions flowing outward and turn the liquid to a gel. Lyon B. King and Kurt Terhune, mechanical engineers at Michigan Tech, wanted to find out how this actually happens.

“The challenge is making measurements of features as small as a few molecules in the presence of a strong electric field, which is why we turned to John Cumings at the University of Maryland,” King says, explaining Cumings is known for his work with challenging materials and that they needed to look for a needle in a haystack. “Getting a close look at these droplets is like looking through a straw to find a penny somewhere on the floor of a room–and if that penny moves out of view, like the tip of the molten salt needles do–then you have to start searching for it all over again.”

At the Advanced Imaging and Microscopy Lab at the University of Maryland, Cumings put the tiny thruster in a transmission electron microscope – an advanced scope that can see things down to millionths of a meter. They watched as the droplet elongated and sharpened to a point, and then started emitting ions. Then the tree-like defects began to appear.

The researchers say that figuring out why these branched structures grow could help prevent them from forming. The problem occurs when high-energy electrons, like those used in the microscope’s imaging beam, impact the fluid causing damage to the molecules that they strike. This damages the molten salt’s molecular structure, so it thickens into a gel and no longer flows properly.

“We were able to watch the dendritic structures accumulate in real time,” says Kurt Terhune, a mechanical engineering graduate student and the study’s lead author. “The specific mechanism still needs to be investigated, but this could have importance for spacecraft in high-radiation environments.”

He adds that the microscope’s electron beam is more powerful than natural settings, but the gelling effect could affect the lifetime of electrospray thrusters in low-Earth and geosynchronous orbit.

Michal Dudic

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