Electric propulsion systems far smaller than anything previously flown could be ready for deployment by 2012, enabling the US Air Force's very small satellites to perform intricate and prolonged space manoeuvres.
Giving very small satellites this manoeuvring ability will enable them to travel between different orbits, adjust their trajectory during intricate formation flying and carry out their own destructive controlled re-entries at the end of their useful lives, reducing the space debris problem.
US Air Force Office of Scientific Research-funded work being carried out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is focused on electrically charged salts known as ionic liquids. In the next few months, the velocity of a prototype thruster's ions and their energy will be measured to determine the engine's thrust and efficiency.
Then, later this year, the researchers will study how these mini-thrusters can be built into so-called cubesats, a class of small satellites used as technology demonstrators by governments, companies and universities. They are launched "piggyback" with rockets' larger, primary payloads.
The mini-thruster technology could also be used for manufacturing electronics, according to project leader Paulo Lozano: "Fast-moving ions coming out from the mini-thrusters can be used to etch semiconductors to create patterns in the nanometer scale, to fabricate computer chips or small mechanical devices."