For the first time in history, a telecommunications satellite used iodine-based fuel to change its orbit around the Earth. In the future, its use will reduce the amount of space debris in Earth’s orbit.
A small but potentially useful innovation could help clear space debris from the sky, allowing tiny satellites to cheaply and easily self-destruct at the end of their mission, heading into the atmosphere, where they burn up.
This iodine-based fuel technology can also be used to extend the life of small CubeSats that track, for example, the health of crops on Earth or entire mega-constellations of nanosatellites that provide global Internet access by raising their orbits when they begin to drift. to the planet.
The technology was developed by ThrustMe, a subsidiary of École Polytechnique and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), with support from ESA as part of the Advanced Telecommunication Systems Research (ARTES) program.
The technology uses a new fuel – iodine – in an electric motor that controls the satellite’s height above Earth. Iodine is cheaper and uses simpler technologies than traditional fuels. Unlike many traditional rocket fuels, iodine is non-toxic and remains solid at room temperature and pressure. This simplifies and reduces the cost of working on Earth.
When heated, it turns into a gas without passing through the liquid phase, making it ideal for a simple propulsion system. In addition, it is denser than traditional fuels, so it occupies less space onboard the satellite.
ThrustMe has launched its iodine engine on the commercial research nano-satellite SpaceTy Beihangkongshi-1, which went into space in November 2020. It was tested earlier this month before being used to change the satellite’s orbit.