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posted by martyb on Wednesday March 07 2018, @10:31AM   Printer-friendly
from the here-be-dragons dept.

World-first firing of air-breathing electric thruster

In a world-first, an ESA-led team has built and fired an electric thruster to ingest scarce air molecules from the top of the atmosphere for propellant, opening the way to satellites flying in very low orbits for years on end.

[...] Replacing onboard propellant with atmospheric molecules would create a new class of satellites able to operate in very low orbits for long periods. Air-breathing electric thrusters could also be used at the outer fringes of atmospheres of other planets, drawing on the carbon dioxide of Mars, for instance.

"This project began with a novel design to scoop up air molecules as propellant from the top of Earth's atmosphere at around 200 km altitude with a typical speed of 7.8 km/s," explains ESA's Louis Walpot.

A complete thruster was developed for testing the concept by Sitael in Italy, which was performed in a vacuum chamber in their test facilities, simulating the environment at 200 km altitude.

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  • (Score: 2) by fyngyrz on Wednesday March 07 2018, @01:30PM (1 child)

    by fyngyrz (6567) on Wednesday March 07 2018, @01:30PM (#648976) Journal

    If you think PV panels, there's a trade-off: the panels will create drag.

    Even scooping up gas molecules adds drag.

    However, integrated conformal PV panels can be designed on such that they don't add drag.

    All of this is a balancing act. If the sum total of the thrust generated by gas molecules + impetus added by the electrical system is greater than the drag, and can be directed where it needs to go, the system can work.

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  • (Score: 2) by c0lo on Wednesday March 07 2018, @02:18PM

    by c0lo (156) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday March 07 2018, @02:18PM (#648987) Journal

    This is why I said 'trade off' rather than 'outright impossible'.