Penny-Sized Ion Thrusters Could Steer the Satellites Of the Future

By Eric Limer on at

Rockets might be fiery fun, but they're big, bulky, and heavy. Ion thrusters, sci-fi as they sound, are real and these penny-sized ones are probably the future of steering small satellites in orbit.

Designed by an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, Paulo Lozano, these "microthrusters" fire beams of ions when they're juiced with electricity. Each microthruster has over 500 microscopic tips, and each one contributes to the stream with its own ion blasts. In contrast to traditional rockets, ion thrusters don't provide a whole lot of thrust, but you don't need much in space.

These tiny thrusters are perfect for cubesats, Rubik's Cube-sized satellites that, right now, don't have any way to adjust once in orbit. Because these microthrusters are so small and so light, they'll be a big help in keeping cubesats in position in high orbits, where they'll have a much longer life and won't become space-trash like they do now. These puppies aren't in space yet, but they have been tested in a vacuum chamber. Hopefully, somewhere down the line, they'll be nudging tiny satellites into just the right spots. [MIT via Engadget]