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University of Michigan crowdfunds cubesat plasma thruster experiment

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.

You can read more about the University of Michigan’s Cubesat Ambipolar Thruster either on the UoM website or their kickstarter page.

Image: Artists impression of a CAT-fitted cubesat under power. Image: UoM.

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About The Author
My name's Chris Pounds. I started Astronomy Aggregator in 2012 as a hobby site for my interests in spaceflight and astronomy. I'm finishing up an MSc. in Aerospace Engineering. My undergraduate degree was in Mechanical Engineering with a final year dissertation focussed on performance characteristics of aerospike rocket nozzles.
  • December 21, 2013 at 16:14

    Why this is exciting – I wrote a messagre asking whether this would make missions to bodies like 24 Themis possible, and got the following response:

    >Orbits and fly bys of asteroids are some of the exciting missions we have planned for CAT enabled CubeSats. It would not be cost effective for large, expensive spacecraft to go to 24 Themis, so most of them go to high profile locations: typically Mars and the moon. With the low cost to make and launch a CubeSat, a huge variety of destinations will be viable, including 24 Themis! These sorts of mission will give us a more comprehensive picture of our solar system as a whole, not just the flashy destinations.

    • astroagg
      December 21, 2013 at 16:24

      This is why I say that this technology has legs – big organisations (national space programs or bodies) with a lot of funding have the capacity to send multi-ton probes to objects or bodies of interest but they’re massively expensive.

      The good thing about UoM’s CAT is that it has a good chance of opening up space exploration to much smaller organisations who want to get some usable data. At the minute Cubesats are limited to being cheap, disposable one-shot satellites. The CAT means that these can be turned into cheap, disposable space probes. They might take longer than current probes with larger Ion engines to get somewhere, but if they’re a fraction of the price, who is going to care?

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