A miniaturized high ISP (specific impulse) propulsion system would enable small spacecraft to perform high delta-v manoeuvers, vastly expanding the science missions possible for 1-100 kg spacecraft.
The FP7 project MicroThrust aims to develop a modular miniaturized colloid thruster, with a target ISP of 3000 s and a module size fitting comfortably in a single unit cubesat.
Small and low cost spacecraft have proven to be the initiation for many newcomers in space, be they universities, research establishments, companies or countries that have not had a heritage in space. The characteristic mission for these satellites historically has been one of space science. One of the major shortcomings small spacecraft, and especially nanosatellites (below 10 kg), is the lack of efficient propulsion allowing the satellite to manoeuvre away from, or even control the orbit into which they are released; this limits their capability to conduct numerous types of scientific space exploration missions. The lack of efficient propulsion also currently precludes missions utilizing a fleet of small satellites to create a synthetic aperture sensor. For this mission type formation flying is a prerequisite, which in turn requires accurate and efficient propulsion onboard all spacecraft in the constellation.
The combination of small and low cost satellites with an efficient propulsion system would offer vast new possibilities to conduct scientific missions both in earth orbit and elsewhere in the solar system. With more players in the space community combined with affordable and capable satellite platforms, the focus can be shifted from getting there to doing science in space.
In the FP7 project MicroThrust, we are developing a full system based on a micro-machined colloid thruster, including miniaturized high voltage power supply and propelling management. We are studying a range of missions that this technology enables, for satellite of mass 3 to 100 kg, focusing initially on the most challenging ones: missions to NEO, the moon, mars and L1, requiring delta-V of over 5 km/s.