A tiny type of satellite and a new propulsion system could make cheap space exploration a reality.
CubeSats are small, cheap spacecraft that weigh only 5kg and that have so far remained restricted to orbit around the Earth. But through the development of a new miniature propulsion system known as the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster (CAT), these tiny ships could soon be capable of flying missions to Jupiter and beyond for budgets not exceeding $1M.
A crowdfunding campaign has been launched to help raise enough funds to launch a test flight. Essentially a plasma engine, the CAT thruster is similar to NASA's Ion engine but on a much smaller scale. Using only 2.5kg of fuel, it should be possible to propel a CubeSat spacecraft to Europa or other high-interest targets within our solar system on a budget that is up to 1000 times less than that needed to send conventional interplanetary 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."
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