Way back when I was looking at grad schools, I visited an MIT space propulsion lab where students and faculty were developing something called an electrospray thruster. This is a device consisting of a plate covered in tiny spikes, with a tiny grid layered on top. You feed an ionic liquid onto the plate, where surface tension wicks it up to the tips of the spikes. (Ionic liquids – and this kind of boggled my mind when I first learned about them – are salts that are in their liquid state. They’re just a bunch of sloshing positive and negative ions. Wild!) Then, you apply a voltage to the grid sitting above the spikes. The potential difference between the spikes and the grid yanks ions up and hurls them out through the holes in the grid, and voila – ion thruster.

The MIT Space Propulsion Lab has been developing these as little patch thrusters that they can put on CubeSats. The thrusters are 1×1 cm patches and seem to generate forces in the range of ten or so micronewtons. (That would be, say, 1% of the weight of a postage stamp.) These are very small forces, but we are talking about very small satellites and we can leave the thrusters on for a very long time.

The idea that stuck in my head when I learned about these devices, though, is that they are mechanically very simple: all we have to do is texture a surface appropriately, touch the ionic liquid to it, and energize part of it. We could probably develop a fabrication method to print the thruster “texture” onto a flexible membrane or fabric of some kind.

And then we could deploy it like a sail.

10 micronewtons from a 1×1 cm thruster gives a thrust density of 0.1 N/m^2. So a 1×1 meter sail would produce a thrust force of about a tenth of a newton. On a standard 3U CubeSat, this corresponds to an acceleration of 3.4 milligees – which is actually getting up to the acceleration regime of the chemical thrusters on large spacecraft! With such acceleration, it would take five minutes for the CubeSat to add one meter per second to its velocity. Starting from low Earth orbit, this miniature sailing vessel would need only twenty minutes to hit Earth escape velocity!

3U CubeSat with 1 meter "pusher" sail
3U CubeSat with 1 meter sail

What probably makes the most sense from a propulsion perspective is to deploy the membrane engine behind the spacecraft, maximizing the engine area and minimizing any adverse effects of the ion exhaust. (All those high-energy ions might eat away at the spacecraft’s solar cells or other surfaces!) However, there might be some challenges in running the ionic liquid down to the sail.

A good compromise would be a sail mounted to the back or middle of the CubeSat – think of  the NanoSail-D configuration – where a reservoir of ionic liquid could supply a steady stream of propellant to the membrane and most of the zooming ions will miss the back of the spacecraft. The forward-facing part of the membrane might also be usable area, for things like solar cells. Or CCDs.

Ion engines caused a shift in the way spacecraft engineers thought about propulsion: instead of brief, impulsive maneuvers, they could use a gentle but steady acceleration for a long period of time. The ability to spread an ion engine over a large area might be a way to create a high-efficiency thruster that also produces a large force, and with few moving or complex parts. That’s the kind of device we might use to send a small spacecraft to the outer Solar System. Of course, we’d need a lot of electrical power, but that’s why the DOE is starting plutonium refining again…

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