ESA and IENAI Space unveil innovative electrospray propulsion for small satellites

ESA and IENAI Space Introduce Breakthrough Electrospray Propulsion System for Small Satellites

by Sophie Jenkins

Paris (ESA) Dec 22, 2023

In a groundbreaking development in the realm of small satellite propulsion, the European Space Agency (ESA) and IENAI Space, a cutting-edge technology firm based in Spain, have unveiled a revolutionary electrospray propulsion system called ATHENA (Adaptable THruster based on Electrospray powered by Nanotechnology). This state-of-the-art technology aims to improve the maneuverability and longevity of CubeSats and similar small satellites and has recently achieved a remarkable milestone of over 400 hours of continuous operation, marking a significant advancement in the field of satellite propulsion.

At the core of ATHENA’s design lies its seven arrays of emitters, meticulously etched onto a silicon wafer using advanced micro- and nano-technology. These arrays consist of more than 500 pinhole-sized emitters, which emit ions at high velocities. The ions are then accelerated using an electrostatic field, maximizing the thrust generated by the system. This approach not only offers scalability but also distinguishes itself with its efficiency in terms of mass and cost, making it exceptionally well-suited for CubeSats and other small-scale satellites.

Daniel Perez Grande, CEO and Co-founder of IENAI Space, emphasized the challenges and achievements involved in the development of ATHENA. “While everyone acknowledges that ‘space is hard,’ we like to say that ‘propulsion is even harder,'” he commented. Perez Grande highlighted the customizable nature and exceptional performance of their propulsion products, noting the significant interest they have garnered from various industry players.

The distinctive propulsion mechanism of ATHENA relies on conductive ionic-liquid salts as its fuel source. These liquids pass through nano-textured conical emitters and are subsequently accelerated between an emitter and an extractor operating at different electric potentials. The interaction between the liquid’s surface tension and the electrostatic field results in the formation of ions that can be expelled at speeds of approximately 20km/s, generating the necessary force to propel the satellite.

One of the most noteworthy features of the ATHENA system is its ability to provide highly customizable thrust using environmentally friendly and non-toxic “green” propellants. This groundbreaking technology eliminates the need for pressurized tanks, further enhancing the safety and simplicity of satellite designs. The thrusters can be clustered freely as required, with up to six units fitting onto the 10 cm face of a single CubeSat unit. These units can also be further clustered to provide thrust for satellites weighing up to 50kg.

The ATHENA project has successfully passed its Preliminary Design Review and aims to deliver a final product by the end of the following year. This development is part of ESA’s General Support Technology Programme, which focuses on preparing innovative products and services for both spaceflight and the commercial market.

This groundbreaking propulsion system signifies a significant leap forward in satellite technology, offering a flexible, efficient, and eco-friendly solution for propelling small satellites. With its continuous operation and customizable capabilities, ATHENA is poised to become a key player in the ever-evolving landscape of space technology.

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