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Surprising Science

Turning CubeSats Into Interplanetary CubeShips

A new Kickstarter campaign seeks $200,000 to propel a CubeSat into Earth orbit and eventually deep space using a miniature propulsion engine.

What’s the Latest Development?

A team of University of Michigan researchers think they have what it takes to turn CubeSats — cheap, small spacecraft that are released from a larger rocket and orbit passively until they fall and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere — into self-propelling probes that could go into deep space and send back data. The key is the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster (CAT), which is a plasma engine that “[generates] thrust by accelerating superheated ionized gas out of a discharge chamber.” In concept it’s similar to the ion engine found on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, but it’s significantly smaller: “The thruster and power systems will weigh less than 1 pound (0.5 kg), while the supply of propellant…will be capped at about 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg).”

What’s the Big Idea?

The team — which is partnering with NASA as well as future asteroid miners Planetary Resources — cites many ways in which CAT-equipped CubeSats can be used, but one of the more ambitious applications involve travel to Jupiter’s moon Europa or other bodies. Cost is also a factor: Compared to the estimated $1 billion needed for a larger mission, $1 million or thereabouts would be a steal. For now, the researchers have launched a Kickstarter campaign for which they hope to raise a minimum of $200,000 by early next month in order to test the system in Earth orbit.

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