Scientists Are Building Tiny, Eco-Friendly, Water-Powered Cube Satellites

Thursday, 17 August 2017 - 10:55AM
Technology
Space
Thursday, 17 August 2017 - 10:55AM
Scientists Are Building Tiny, Eco-Friendly, Water-Powered Cube Satellites
Image credit: CubeSat, NASA
Two major problems plague scientists who rely on satellites—first is the prohibitive cost, and second is the growing mass of junk orbiting the Earth (whose individual pieces move at "upwards of 17,500 miles per hour," according to NASA). With that in mind, it makes sense that scientists are looking for a sustainable solution that will make satellites easier to maintain, as well as more environmentally friendly than launching enormous chunks of metal into orbit.

Enter the CubeSat, the result of research at Purdue University that may be the future of satellite technology. Instead of enormous, hulking traditional satellites, these devices are, as the name would suggest, tiny cubes only a few inches in length, meaning that getting them into orbit requires a lot less effort than it would take to shoot up a larger piece of equipment. Considering that CubeSats are partly 3D printed, they could even be assembled up in space by researchers.

What's really interesting about the CubeSats, though, is their propulsion system. The cubes use heated water to push themselves through the vacuum of space, where only a tiny burst of force will get the satellites a long way. This, the researchers hope, will make CubeSats more sustainable and environmentally friendly than traditional satellites, as well as being a lot more convenient.



The CubeSats work by channeling solar energy to heat up a small amount of water within their core before letting it out in a tiny burst that gives the cube just enough momentum to get started. Additional thrusters can fire in the opposite direction to get the cube to stop again, meaning that, should the researchers achieve their goals, these things should be able to zip around merrily in space with a lot more grace and dexterity than you'd expect from a larger satellite. They're also fueled entirely by sustainable, environmentally friendly sources, which makes them very appealing for long-term thoughts of space travel. After all, there's no shortage of water in our solar system.

CubeSats have already been used as part of research in space, but up until now their size has meant that they've lacked their own form of propulsion, and have needed to rely on other, larger satellites to ferry them around. Now, the team at Purdue are hoping to give these tiny cubes a little more autonomy, allowing them to travel the cosmos freely through the use of just a little bit of water, some solar panels, and guidance from Earth.

The team of scientists working on the CubeSats are still hard at work getting this technology to a point where it meets their needs, as well as applying for a patent, but it's their hope that the little cuboid satellites could be used in space missions in the near future.

If this works, it should be a good step towards self-sustaining space flight for small unmanned satellites, or possibly, spaceships for mice. Because we all know that's the real goal here.
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