NASA funds micro propulsion

Five Boise State University engineering professors have been awarded a NASA grant to develop a micro-propulsion system that could enable satellites to maintain position while in orbit.

Five Boise State University engineering professors have been awarded a $630,479 (£396,044) NASA grant  to develop a micro-propulsion system that could strategically point small satellites and enable them to maintain position while in orbit.

The professors – Don Plumlee, Jim Browning, Amy Moll, Sin Ming Loo and Inanc Senocak – will build on existing research in plasma generation by Plumlee and Browning and on chemical micro-propulsion by Plumlee and Moll, who founded Boise State’s C-MEMS (ceramic micro-electro-mechanical systems) research group to develop the system.

The researchers’ micro-propulsion concept is based on the miniaturisation of an electric thruster, using ceramic materials to integrate fluidics and electronics.The proposed propulsion system would reduce the volume of propellant required, increasing a satellite’s lifespan.

‘The beauty of it is that the power to produce thrust comes from an electrical system charged by a solar array. You still have propellant, but it is an inert gas that gets ionised,’ Plumlee said. ‘The efficiency of these devices is 10 times better than a common chemical thruster, bringing the cost and mission complexity way down.’

Prof Plumlee said the researchers’ goal is to get a self-contained prototype built and ready for flight.

This thruster schematic details a novel micro-propulsion system being developed for NASA by an engineering research team at Boise State University, Idaho