Traditionally, satellites are launched through the use of chemical thrusters. But now, thanks to recent advancements in the world of ion acceleration, a new generation of satellites are being developed that will be 100% electric. This means less weight (no need for the big heavy storage tanks) and less cost to put a satellite into orbit. It might take a little longer to get up there, but across the board, space programs around the world are interested and already committing to electrical satellites.
Among the companies getting into the ion propulsion satellite game, Boeing has emerged as a leading developer. Until recently most of the electric satellites have been used for scientific non-commercial launches, but all signs point to the dawn of the electric commercial satellite era. One of the biggest ongoing space projects, the ESA’s Galileo navigation system, will consist of 30 satellites by 2019. The first couple of satellites launched over the past few years have made use of chemical thrusters onboard the Soyuz rocket. In an effort to reduce costs and increase efficiency, the ESA will very likely make use of ion engines for future launches of Galileo satellites. Two particular companies, OHB Systems of Bremen, Germany, and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) from Guildford, UK, have both signed new agreements with the ESA that will no doubt involve using electric engines in the near future.
How does it all work? BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos explains it like this: “The concept is simple enough. Strip the electrons off a stream of xenon gas atoms so that they become charged (ions). Then put those ions in a magnetic field and accelerate them to extremely highly velocities in one direction to provide thrust for your satellite in the opposite direction.” Simplicity and efficiency. It is no wonder electric satellites are quickly becoming a normal choice for launching things into orbit.
Source: BBC News
Photo: kara brugman / flickr