Help Micro-Sized CubeSats Explore Other Planets

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Courtesy Ben Longmier - University of Michigan

Space exploration is no longer restricted to NASA and other countries’ government-run space programs.  Hardly a week passes these days without hearing new and exciting news about another private enterprise advancement in the field.  Keep reading for news about an exciting project that you can help back through a Kickstarter campaign that was first reported on by

While exploring other planets is expensive, Doctor Ben Longmier and his colleagues at the University of Michigan are about to change all that.  They’re currently working on a plasma engine to propel CubeSats to other planets at a cost somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times less than current methods.  The CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster (CAT) is a new plasma engine that can propel CubeSats around the Earth in orbit or even to other planets in our solar system.


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What’s a CubeSat?  It’s a tiny nanosatellite that’s cubical in shape and only 10cm per side.  They’re usually made with off-the-shelf parts and their primary computing system is an Android-based smartphone.  Back in May I visited NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility where I got to hold one in my hand.  I wrote an article about the trip called My Excellent NASA Adventure – Antares Launch and that’s when I first learned of these CubeSats, also referred to as PhoneSats because of the phone at the heart of the system.

To give you an idea of the size of these little guys, check out the picture on the right.  I was holding a CubeSat named “Pumpkin” on one of the press days before launch.  And, yes, people often name their satellites.  After all that work and preparation you’ve earned the right to give your creation a name.

Currently, CubeSats are deployed from a rocket and drift around until they eventually burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.  The CAT plasma thruster would allow the tiny titans to remain in orbit for long periods instead of meeting a fiery death at the hands of Earth’s gravity, or head out to explore other planets for a very tiny fraction of the cost of traditional technologies.

I find one of the most exciting aspects of private space exploration is the fact that as individuals we can have a direct and concrete impact on these projects.  In the case of the CAT plasma thruster, Dr. Longmier has started a Kickstarter campaign with a financial goal of $200,000 in order to fast-track the project.  Successful funding of the project will allow them to go ahead with actual space testing far faster than a traditional grant process ever could.

Courtesy Ben Longmier - University of Michigan

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If you really want to be a space explorer, now’s your chance.  Consider becoming a backer and click on CAT: A Thruster for Interplanetary CubeSats.  You’ll find a plethora of cool rewards and a ton of information about this new, nano-sized version of space exploration.

Hurry, this project’s deadline is Monday, August 5th at 4:00 pm CDT!

You’ll also get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve become an integral part of exploring strange, new worlds; seeking out new life and new civilizations.  Boldly going where no loaf of bread has gone before.

Naturally, with the CAT thruster attached the CubeSat will be larger than the 10cm cube (Or 1U as it is referred to).  It will still only be 3U or 10x10x30cm when completed which, as Longmier says, is about the size of a loaf of bread.  For an interplanetary space exploration vehicle that’s ridiculously tiny, but it’s going to be the future of space exploration because it’s so cost-effective.

Here’s a brief explanation from the Kickstarter page of how the CAT engine works:

Just like a normal rocket that produces thrust from the burning and expansion of hot gases, CAT produces thrust from the expansion of a super-heated 350,000 °C plasma stream. Plasma is an ionized gas that can be accelerated to produce thrust (F=ma).  The force generated by this thruster will be very low (milli-newtons) but very efficient.  The engine will be turned on for long durations, accelerating the spacecraft to much higher velocities than a typical chemical rocket.

First, the propellant will be injected from its storage container into the plasma discharge chamber, a quartz bottle that distributes the gas and contains the plasma. The gas is turned into a plasma by a radio frequency antenna that surrounds the chamber and launches a plasma wave known as a “helicon.” The plasma is then launched out of the quartz bottle and guided by magnetic fields from extremely powerful permanent magnets. As the plasma escapes the CAT engine, this causes an equal and opposite thrust, pushing the satellite in the opposite direction. Unlike conventional rockets, almost any substance can be used as propellant for CAT – even liquid metals or water vapor!

Here’s a video from the University of Michigan’s Professor James Cutler, also a member of the CAT plasma thruster team, outlining one of their CubeSat projects.  It gives you a pretty good view of a CubeSat and explains the advantages of using these miniscule marvels.

I owe a huge debt of thanks to my Twitter friend Kaye Francis (@grammakaye) who’s always digging up really cool science articles.  Consider giving her a follow on Twitter and you’ll benefit from her seemingly endless supply of good cheer and great science news.  Thanks, Kaye!

Kickstarter Page – CAT: A Thruster for Interplanetary CubeSats

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Tom Gardiner