A new propulsion system that uses electric power and iodine to create thrust has been successfully tested in space, marking a first for such systems.
Having proven that low cost, Iodine-based systems are a viable alternative to the expensive xenon-based systems currently in use, the company behind the scalable technology says that their unique space thruster, “provides small satellites with new maneuvering and space exploration potential, and critical new collision avoidance and deorbiting capabilities that will prove vital for the long term sustainability of the space industry.”
BACKGROUND: SATELLITE MANEUVERABILITY DIFFICULT AND EXPENSIVE
All satellites still require chemical propulsion to achieve orbit. However, changes to that orbit require entirely different systems. At present, this means taking advantage of the electrostatic acceleration of ions that are formed during the ionization of certain gases, most notably xenon. These systems are more commonly referred to as “Ion Drives.” Unfortunately, as the research paper highlighting the latest propulsion system states, “xenon is rare, it must be stored under high pressure and commercial production is expensive.”
Published in the journal Nature, that same paper outlines the steps taken by engineers at ThrustMe, the company behind the successfully tested, iodine-based propulsion system, to prepare for their historic first flight.
“ThrustMe is pioneering the use of iodine within the space industry,” said Dmytro Rafalskyi, the Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of ThrustMe in a release on the company’s site announcing the successful test. “Iodine is significantly more abundant and cheaper than xenon, and has the added advantage that it can be stored unpressurized as a solid”.
ANALYSIS: A SUCCESSFUL FIRST FLIGHT FOR NOVEL PROPULSION SYSTEM
Following rigorous testing and qualifications, ThrustMe’s first iodine based system was integrated into another company’s satellite and launched into space on November 6th, 2020. According to ThrustMe’s website, since that launch, the company, “has been carefully analysing propulsion system and satellite data and comparing in-flight results with ground-based measurements.”
“Results confirm successful operation with expected performance,” the statement adds, “and definite satellite orbital changes matching predictions based on propulsion system telemetry.”
In fact, the company’s statement emphasized, these results were significant enough that they took the rare step of having them peer reviewed and published in a respected scientific journal.
“Publication of these historic results is not only important for ThrustMe, but also for the space industry in general” said Ane Aanesland, CEO and co-founder of ThrustMe. “Having our results peer-reviewed and publically accessible provides the community with further confidence and helps to create a benchmark within the industry.”
OUTLOOK: DODGING SPACE DEBRIS BECOMING CRITICAL
In recent weeks, the crew of the International Space Station has faced serious threats from orbital debris, most likely caused by a pair of anti-satellite missile tests conducted by China and Russia respectively. Although these are not the first potentially catastrophic incidents the space station has encountered during its lifetime, the sheer number of satellites being launched each and every year is making Earth’s orbital real estate increasingly treacherous for all would-be space travelers and satellites alike. As a result, the ability to move satellites cheaply, easily and often is more critical than ever, and could dramatically reduce the possibility of such collisions in the future.
“The successful demonstration of the [iodine thruster] means we can proceed to the next step in the development of iodine propulsion,” said Rafalskyi. “In parallel with our in-space testing we have developed new solutions allowing increased performance and have commenced an extensive ground-based endurance testing campaign to further push the limits of this new technology.”
Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction