Imagine reaching the Moon using just a fraction of a liter of fuel. With their ionic motor, MicroThrust, scientists the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and their European partners are making this a reality and ushering in a new era of low-cost space exploration.
The complete thruster weighs just a few hundred grams and is specifically designed to propel small (1-100 kg) satellites, which it enables to change orbit around the Earth and even voyage to more distant destinations—functions typically possible only for large, expensive spacecraft. The just-released prototype is to be employed on CleanSpace One, a satellite under development at EPFL that is designed to clean up space debris, and on OLFAR, a swarm of Dutch nanosatellites that will record ultra-low radio-frequency signals on the far side of the Moon.
The motor, designed to be mounted on satellites as small as 10x10x10 cm3, is extremely compact but highly efficient. The prototype weighs only about 200 g, including the fuel and control electronics.
“At the moment, nanosatellites are stuck in their orbits. Our goal is to set them free,” explains Herbert Shea, coordinator of the European MicroThrust project and director of EPFL’s Microsystems for Space Technologies Laboratory.