Engineers and researchers around the world are making great efforts to make smaller satellites. Small satellites cost less to develop and cost less to put into orbit. The trick is to create a small satellite that could serve a useful purpose just by being in space. Engineers from the University of Michigan built a satellite that was to be heading into orbit over the weekend specifically to explore the feasibility of a new propulsion method that could help small satellites move around Earth’s orbit without carrying fuel.
If the propulsion method is successful, it could allow small cubic satellites to remain in orbit for long periods and operate in swarms, allowing them to perform functions such as monitoring storms and natural disasters. The small cubes are about the size of a loaf of bread, and their smaller texture allows them to roam the space with bigger tasks. Conventional cubes are low cost and allow new technology to be tested in orbit.
The cubes developed by the engineering team are called MiTEE and were due to launch on Sunday from Mojave Air and Space Port aboard the Virgin Orbit Launch Demo 2. Small satellites are affected by clouds in the upper atmosphere more than large satellites. Clouds slow the orbit of small satellites, causing them to fall toward Earth.
For this reason, small satellites do not last long, as their lifespan is usually measured in days, weeks, or a few months. Small satellites cannot resist drag because their size does not allow additional weight to carry propulsion systems. The engineering team is trying to harness the laws of electromagnetism to help keep small satellites out in space.
The idea is to connect two small satellites with a 10 to 30 meter long wire that can direct a current in any direction using power from the solar panels on the plane. Earth’s ionosphere will close the electrical circuit. When the wire directs a current into a magnetic field, the magnetic field exerts a force on the wire. The engineering team hopes to use the strength of Earth’s magnetic field to push the satellite higher into orbit and compensate for the resistance of the atmosphere.
The satellite has a solid deployable arm one meter long between a small breadbox-sized satellite into another the size of a large smartphone. Researchers will measure the amount of current that can be drawn from the ionosphere under different conditions. The data collected during the mission will be used to create future satellites with a longer rope in an area of 30 feet or more.