The University of Michigan successfully crowdfunded their Cubesat Ambipolar Thruster on Kickstarter today, securing nearly $96,800 in funding. According to the project lead, Ben Longmier, this funding will be enough to install a more finessed thruster design on the test cubesats that will result in greater efficiency and longer mission duration.
There has been a noticeable trend in recent years towards the technological development of small form factor satellites (Cubesats) and this kickstarter is apparently the next step of the process – taking those miniature satellites and turning them into miniature, affordable space probes able to take their instruments to other bodies by miniaturising plasma thruster technology.
Where the CAT diverges from existing plasma thruster designs is in the efficiency of producing thrust. A quick look at current plasma thrusters available for cubesats reveals that they are mainly about simply prolonging the life of a cubesat, periodically boosting the orbit to account for atmospheric drag. The ambipolar thruster also has the claimed advantage of being able to be developed to use water as a propellant – most plasma thrusters use relatively heavy mass elements like Xenon but using water down the line makes for a sustainable fuel that could also be mined from asteroids or other planets and moons.
So far the CAT has only been tested in a ground based vacuum chamber at the University of Michigan but this Kickstarter funding will provide the means to mount a CAT prototype to a cubesat and flight-validate the design with appropriate specialist instrumentation.
I have to admit that I’m not too solid on electric propulsion, but even I can see that this particular technology has certainly got some legs and bears watching closely in the future.
Image: Artists impression of a CAT-fitted cubesat under power. Image: UoM.