Georgia Tech researchers have developed a prototype engine that allows satellites to take off with less fuel, opening the door for deep space missions, lower launch costs and more payload in orbit.
The efficient satellite engine uses up to 40 per cent less fuel by running on solar power while in space and by fine-tuning exhaust velocity. Satellites using the Georgia Tech engine to blast off can carry more payload thanks to the mass freed up by the smaller amount of fuel needed for the trip into orbit. Or, if engineers wanted to use the reduced fuel load another way, the satellite could be launched more cheaply by using a smaller launch vehicle.
The fuel-efficiency improvements could also give satellites expanded capabilities, such as more manoeuvrability once in orbit or the ability to serve as a refuelling or towing vehicle.
The Georgia Tech project, lead by Dr. Mitchell Walker, an assistant professor in the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, was funded by a grant from the US Air Force. The project team made significant experimental modifications to one of five donated satellite engines from aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney to create the final prototype.
The key to the engine improvements, said
The new Georgia Tech engine allows ground control units to adjust the engine’s operating gear based on the immediate propulsive need of the satellite. The engine operates in first gear to maximise acceleration during orbit transfers and then shifts to fifth gear once in the desired orbit. This allows the engine to burn at full capacity when required and conserve fuel at other times.
‘You can really tailor the exhaust velocity to what you need from the ground,’
The Georgia Tech engine operates with an efficient ion propulsion system. Xenon atoms are injected into the discharge chamber. The atoms are ionised, which forms xenon ions. The light electrons are constrained by the magnetic field while the heavy ions are accelerated out into space by an electric field, propelling the satellite to high speeds.
Georgia Tech’s significant improvement to existing xenon propulsion systems is a new electric and magnetic field design that helps better control the exhaust particles,
The satellite engine is almost ready for military applications, but may be several years away from commercial use,