Artist's concept of a tiny CubeSat equipped with the new CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster system, or CAT.
Artist’s concept of a tiny CubeSat equipped with the new CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster system, or CAT.

Image: Ben Longmier – University of Michigan

Researchers plan to launch a tiny spacecraft

Researchers plan to launch a tiny spacecraft to Earth orbit and beyond within the next 18 months, in a key test of new propulsion technology that could help cut the cost of planetary exploration by a factor of 1,000.

The scientists and engineers are developing a new plasma propulsion system designed for ultrasmall CubeSats. If all goes well, they say, it may be possible to launch a life-detection mission to Jupiter’s ocean-harboring moon Europa or other intriguing worlds for as little as $1 million in the not-too-distant future.

“We want to enable new missions that right now cost about $1 billion, or maybe $500 million — to go, for example, explore the moons of Jupiter and Saturn,” said project leader Ben Longmier, a plasma physicist and assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

To get the ball rolling, Longmier and his team launched a crowdfunding campaign on the website Kickstarter Thursday (July 4). They hope to raise a minimum of $200,000 by Aug. 5, which should be enough to loft the miniature thruster on its maiden space voyage.

via New Space Engine Could Turn Tiny CubeSats into Interplanetary Explorers: Scientific American.