In recent years, shoebox-sized "CubeSats" have made satellite technology available to groups that could otherwise never afford it. A new propulsion system, developed at Indiana's Purdue University, could now also make the devices more reliable.

Because they're so small, CubeSats cost much less than their full-size counterparts to build and buy, plus they can be launched into orbit as just one part of a rocket's existing payload (in other words, they don't require a launch all of their own). Once they're in orbit, they use their own little chemical thrusters to maneuver and to hold position.

According to Purdue scientists, however, the ignition system used in such thrusters can become irreversibly damaged through repeated use, ultimately giving out before the CubeSat's planned lifespan is over. That's where the new technology comes in.

Utilizing a technique known as Low Energy Surface Flashover (LESF), it creates plasma which is electromagnetically accelerated down a narrow channel. As the plasma leaves that channel, thrust is produced. The whole process uses relatively little energy, with each thrust pulse lasting less than 100 to 200 nanoseconds (a nanosecond is one billionth of a second).

Because the pulses are so short, there is very little cumulative damage to the system. In lab tests, one of the LESF setups was still operational after more than 1.5 million pulses.

The study is being led by Asst. Prof. Alexey Shashurin, and is described in a paper that was recently published in the journal Plasma Research Express.

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