Aspirated electric propeller uses air as "fuel"

Satellites are propelled by an aspirated electric propulsion system.

According to a recent report by the U.S. Space Network, the European Space Agency (ESA) has for the first time tested a new type of suction-type electric thruster that can collect atmospheric molecules and use it as an alternative to on-board propellants, which is expected to enable near-Earth orbit satellites to stay for almost indefinitely. In space, it will also make future Mars exploration easier.

Satellites need thrust in space to stay or move. In general, satellites use rocket-like chemical propulsion devices, but electric propulsors are becoming more popular due to their higher efficiency. However, propellants (such as helium) are still used in current electric propulsion systems. Therefore, the standby time of satellites is limited by the amount of propellant carried, and the propellants carried by satellites are limited. And to offset atmospheric drag, satellites that operate within a few hundred kilometers of the Earth’s surface consume more propellant.

But now, ESA has developed a new type of electric propulsion system that draws air molecules from the top of the Earth's atmosphere, compresses these molecules and turns it into a plasma, and applies an electric field (power can be obtained from solar panels) that can accelerate plasma flow. This provides thrust for the satellites, which allows the satellites to operate in very low altitude orbits around the Earth for a long time.

The project leader, Luis Walport, explained that when satellite power is insufficient, enough air can be drawn in low earth orbit to pressurize satellites and other spacecraft on a regular basis to ensure that satellites will not be depleted due to fuel consumption. Gravity crashes and can fly at the lowest orbital altitude. Of course, the system can also work on the outer edge of the Martian atmosphere, collecting carbon dioxide molecules there as "fuel."

Polish and Italian scientists simulated a 200 km altitude environment in a vacuum chamber and successfully tested the technology. Walport said: "We are now considering potential applications for this technology."

He said that because it can only operate in a vacuum or near-vacuum environment, the working height of the suction propeller can be as low as 160 kilometers. Walport said: "The use of air as a propellant opens up new ground for near-Earth space missions. These tasks can be used for high-resolution imaging, studying changes in the top of the atmosphere, etc." (Reporter Liu Xia)

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