The European Space Agency (ESA) has for the first time tested a prototype ion engine powered by air that could be used in future satellite missions.
The life of satellites in orbit depends upon the amount of propellant they can carry. The newly designed thruster absorbs molecules from the upper atmosphere and converts them into usable fuel. For future space missions it could mean that there will be no need to rely on any propellants as the new thruster could provide for fuel indefinitely.
“Providing atmospheric drag compensation without the use of carry-on propellant, this kind of electric propulsion would let satellites orbit at very low altitudes around Earth for very long operational time,” Louis Walpot, the project leader at ESA, told Space.com. “Normally their orbit would decay rapidly and they’d re-enter the atmosphere.”
The ESA also tested an innovative collector that collects air molecules. Walpot explained that it was challenging for them to design the collector as the air molecules tend to bounce out again. It was difficult for them to retain and compress the air molecules to a point where they turn into plasma, capable of being accelerated with an electric field.
He added that the thruster design is entirely passive in nature. What happens is that the air enters the collector due to the spacecraft’s velocity as it orbits around Earth that uses electric power to ionize the compressed air. Walpot assured that the system would also work at the outer edges of the atmosphere of Mars by harvesting carbon dioxide molecules.
ESA began working on the project in 2015 in collaboration with the Polish firm QuinteScience and Italy’s space agency Sitael. The test was conducted in a vacuum chamber in Italy to simulate an altitude of approximately 125 miles.