No Need for Fuel – This Spacecraft Uses Air to Propel Itself in Space

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This satellite system has no fuel but rather sucks in the air to propel itself forward, providing unlimited propulsion for longer-duration orbital operations. While this amazing innovation does not exist yet, researchers from the University of Surrey’s Surrey Space Centre are working to bring it to life.

This innovative concept is called air-breathing electric propulsion (ABEP) spacecraft and is meant to fly in the very low Earth orbit (altitudes below 400 km), an orbital location with the potential to dramatically improve Earth observation, climate monitoring, and satellite communications.

According to Interesting Engineering, air-breathing electric propulsion uses upper atmospheric air as a fuel to power an electric thruster on a satellite. In short, this means that the satellite’s device collects air from the upper atmosphere and channels these air particles into a specialized ionization chamber, where the air particles are bombarded with energy, turning them into a super-hot, electrically charged plasma. This process can be used to propel the spacecraft.

VLEO is a better location than low Earth orbit (where most of the current satellites are launched and placed), since it is less crowded, has almost no issue of space debris, and is much closer to Earth. From that orbital position, the new air-breathing spacecraft can provide more detailed observations and imagery of Earth.

Dr. Andrea Lucca Fabris from the University of Surrey said in the press release: “There are benefits to flying in very low altitude orbits, like being able to operate Earth observation at much higher resolutions than offered at present… It could also mean faster telecommunications, and it opens the door to new scientific discoveries about conditions in the ionosphere, which could help develop more accurate atmospheric models.”

However, despite all these benefits, satellites are not being launched into VLEO yet due to the atmospheric drag at highly low altitudes – Low Earth Orbit means satellites can sustain their orbits with minimal propulsion as they continuously circle the Earth. At VLEO, however, the satellites would require constant thrust to prevent them from falling or deorbiting. This issue might well be solved by the air-breathing satellite concept, which would provide unlimited propellant capacity.

Another challenge of satellites in orbit is their limited onboard propulsion, meaning the satellite might become inactive while still fully operational because it runs out of fuel. This innovation will enable satellites to function for longer durations.