A new electric shock that blasts iodine has now been successfully tested in orbit, a milestone that could help lead to significantly smaller, simpler, cheaper and higher performance engines for satellites and spacecraft, a new study reports.
Conventional Rockets Use chemical reactions to drive propulsion. In contrast, electric shocks produce thrust by using electric power to accelerate propellants such as electrically charged ions away from a spacecraft.
Electric impulse generates much less thrust than chemical rockets, making it too weak to launch a spacecraft from Earth’s surface. But Electric comforters They are highly efficient in producing thrust, because of the small amount of propellant they carry. This makes them very useful for spacecraft that are already in place.
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Currently, xenon gas is the propellant of choice in electric trusters. However, xenon is rare, which comprises less than 1 part per 10 million in Earth’s atmosphere. It is too expensive, about $ 3,000 per 2.2 pounds (1 kilo). In addition, the gas requires bulky pressurized tanks, as well as complex networks of pipes, valves and pumps to transport it around a propulsion system.
A possible alternative to xenon that researchers have explored in the last 20 years is iodine, the same element often packaged with table salt and used as an antiseptic. Iodine is cheaper and more abundant than xenon and can be stored unpressurized as a solid which changes directly into a gas when heated, potentially enabling significant miniaturization and simplification. Previous research has shown that electric thrusters with iodine can be more efficient than those that use xenon in ground-based tests.
However, iodine presents its own challenges when it comes to propulsion. For example, iodine is highly corrosive, posing a potential danger to electronics and other systems onboard spacecraft. In addition, vibrations during launch and spacecraft motion once in orbit can create solid iodine break into pieces, which could damage the propulsion system, among other problems.
Now scientists have for the first time launched an iodine-based electric thruster in space and shown that it can help drive a spacecraft into orbit.
“We show that iodine can be safely used in space, and bring an option for propulsion systems on board even the smallest spacecraft,” said the chief technical officer and co-founder of space propulsion company ThrustMe, which is headquartered near Paris. .
The new electric thruster, the NPT30-I2 from ThrustMe, fits in a single package about 4 inches by 4 inches by 4 inches (10 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm) in size and about 2.6 pounds (1.2 kg) in mass. It served as the propulsion system for a 44-pound (20 kg) cubesat, The Beihangkongshi-1 satellite operated by Chinese satellite company Spastei, which launched into space on a long 6 March rocket on November.
Earth radar stations confirmed that the NPT30-I2 helped the miniature Satellite Maneuver in orbit. All in all, the new thrust released iodine puffs which cumulatively boosted the cubes’ height by more than 1.8 miles (3 kilometers).
The new findings show that iodine is not only a viable propellant, but can also achieve nearly 50% more efficient propulsion than xenon, because of factors such as how iodine is easier to electrify than xenon. The company has opened a production line for the new sturgeon and has already delivered more than 10 of them to satellite manufacturers worldwide, Rafalskiy said.
“Our team of approximately 10 engineers and a few PhDs reached something that has been a dream of the propulsion community for decades,” Rafalskiy said.
To deal with the problem of corrosion, the scientists developed ceramics and polymers to protect metal components in the satellite. To keep the iodine from shattering, they strengthened it by embedding the iodine crystals in a porous ceramic block.
“We are pioneers in using iodine, but that does not mean that we do not encourage others to alter to this propellant,” Rafalskiy said. “We are very candid about our research results, and look forward to seeing more and more propulsion manufacturers converting to iodine.”
The new booster could help tiny satellites and large networks of satellites, such as SpaceX’s Starlink Megaconstitution, performing maneuvers in space, such as avoiding collisions, staying in orbit and changing from one orbit to another.
“Currently, the majority of the smallest satellites have no propulsion options due to the complexity, costs and risks associated with the use of standard propulsion systems,” Rafalskiy said. “Iodine enables strong propulsion for even the smallest satellites due to inherent properties of iodine. Site maneuverability becomes accessible to any user, including universities and small startups.”
In the future, the researchers want to accelerate their research to cover large Earth-orbiting satellites as well as deep space missions, Rafalskiy said.
The scientists detailed Their findings In the 18th of November from the journal Nature.
Originally published on Space.com. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom Or on Facebook.