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Air-Breathing Electric Thruster Created for Low-Orbit Satellites


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What goes up must come down, is an old but accurate saying that poses a problem for satellite missions, especially those in low orbit. While the atmosphere 200 Km up is thin, it is still present enough to produce drag on a satellite, decaying its orbit. To compensate for this a thruster can be used, but once its propellant supply runs out, the satellite will fall from orbit, just like what happened to the GOCE gravity-mapping mission. For GOCE the propellant was xenon, but thanks to new work by the European Space Agency, future low-orbit missions, both for around Earth and potentially other worlds, air-breathing thrusters may be used instead.

This new thruster had to overcome the challenge of air molecules bouncing away at the intake, instead of being collected and compressed, but this was achieved. Once collected the molecules can be given an electric charge and propelled from the back producing thrust. The only parts that need any power are the coils and electrodes, with the remainder working on a passive basis, making the thruster simpler and efficient.

To test the innovative intake, normally one would feed it and measure the density at the collector, but instead the researchers decided to have the electric thruster attached and measure the thrust produced. Initially a stream of xenon was used, to confirm it was working, but then a feed of nitrogen-oxygen air replaced it, and the switch could be visibly observed by watching the engine plume change color. The system was then ignited successfully and repeatedly, confirming the feasibility of this design.

By using an air-breathing design, this removes the need for a special propellant on a satellite mission, making it possible for the satellite to continue its mission for a longer period of time. Also, as it can work with other kinds of gases, it could be used to enable satellite missions in low-orbit around a planet like Mars, with the carbon dioxide in its atmosphere serving as the propellant.

Source: ESA

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