CubeSat thrusters are actually really exciting

Friday, July 12, 2013

I've found a Kickstarter campaign I think I'll be donating to - a drive for $200,000 to develop a thruster for interplanetary CubeSats, not by any mean organization but the University of Michigan:
The CAT engine is being developed at the University of Michigan’s Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory (PEPL).
It's exciting because CubeSats are incredibly cheap, about a thousand times cheaper than your average probe, and having a thruster of this type would make missions such as flybys to a huge number of small asteroids possible. With a real thruster, a flyby (or even orbit?) of my favourite asteroid 24 Themis is doable as well. What has prevented us so far from exploring these bodies has been cost: a mission in the hundreds of millions of dollars will always need a high-priority target, such as a major planet (Venus, Mars, Jupiter) or multiple destinations (Vesta + Ceres), or a demonstration of new technology along with some science return, in which case a less well-known destination is possible.

The specs are as follows:

CAT engine specs:

Up to 2 mN thrust for 10W (20mN for 100W pulsed)
Up to 20,000 m/s plasma exhaust velocity
Up to 10 Watts continuous (100W pulsed for 10min)
92% efficient solid-state DC to RF converter
Expected engine lifetime, >20,000 hrs of operation
Expected propellant: Iodine or Water
Expected propellant mass: <2 .5="" br="" kg="">
3U CubeSat (30 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm)
2.5 kg dry mass (5 kg total mass)
20 W of power produced from deployable solar panels
Passive magnetic attitude stabilization from nozzle magnets interacting with Earth's magnetic field
Anticipated lifetime in LEO: 5 yrs (radiation limit for onboard chips)
Anticipated lifetime beyond Earth: 10 yrs (battery lifetime)

A 30 cm length and 2.5 kg dry mass means that the CubeSat can simply hitch a ride along with a much larger satellite, wait for it to enter its orbit and then quietly begin its own trip to its destination.


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