New spacecraft system uses air as fuel to deliver endless electric propulsion

UNITED KINGDOM – A fuel-free, air-sucking satellite system could one day provide unlimited propulsion for longer-duration orbital operations.

Researchers at the University of Surrey’s Surrey Space Center are developing a new generation of spacecraft that will be propelled by capturing air rather than using standard thrusters.

This innovative concept, called an Aerobic Electric Propulsion spacecraft, will fly near our planet in Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO). This orbit is between 95 and 250 miles altitude. This orbital position has the potential to significantly improve Earth observation, climate monitoring and satellite communications.

The center recently received £250,000 from the UK Space Agency to advance the development of the concept of air-breathing electric propulsion. This grant will allow them to create a design, perform propulsion tests, analyze orbital mechanics and perform aerodynamic simulations.

Breathing electric propulsion (ABEP) uses air from the upper atmosphere as fuel to power an electric thruster on a satellite.

In a nutshell, a satellite’s device collects air from the upper atmosphere and channels these air particles into a specialized ionization chamber. Inside this chamber, air particles are bombarded with energy, transforming them into an extremely hot, electrically charged state called plasma. This process can be used to power the spacecraft.

“We developed a cathode, or neutralizer, to operate in electrostatic thrusters operating in the rarefied air found in ultra-low Earth orbit,” explained Mansur Tisaev, a postgraduate student at the university.

“By collecting and compressing gases at this altitude, we can create a propellant flow that is ionized (that is, transformed into a mixture of charged particles) and accelerated using combinations of electric and magnetic fields, exploiting the electrical energy from solar panels.”

VLEO offers various advantages over Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where most current satellites are launched and placed. VLEO is less crowded, with almost no space debris issues, and much closer to our planet.

From this orbital position, the new breathing spacecraft can provide more detailed observations and images of our planet.

“There are advantages to flying in very low altitude orbits, such as the possibility of observing the Earth at much higher resolutions than currently offered,” Andrea Lucca Fabris said in the press release.