New Rocket Thruster for CubeSats Uses Water as Propellant

Imperial College is developing a rocket thruster called the Iridium Catalysed Electrolysis CubeSat Thruster (ICE-Cube Thruster) that is revolutionizing the way small satellites, known as CubeSats, are propelled. CubeSats weighing under 10 kg (22 lb) make up the majority of today’s satellite launches, but finding suitable rocket thrusters for these mini satellites is a challenge.

The ICE-Cube Thruster, funded by ESA, meets the criteria for size and simplicity. The entire thruster chip is about the size of a fingernail, with the combustion chamber and nozzle measuring only 1 mm long. It operates on 20 watts of electric current and generated 1.25 millinewtons of thrust during a test campaign. To put it into perspective, this is significantly less thrust compared to the engines used on the Space Shuttle.

What makes the ICE-Cube Thruster unique is its use of ordinary water as the propellant. By utilizing onboard electric current, the thruster breaks down water into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis. These gases are then fed into the combustion chamber, igniting to generate thrust and maneuver the CubeSat.

Using water as a propellant offers numerous advantages. It is non-explosive and non-flammable, making it safer to handle and store. Additionally, water does not require pressurization, reducing the weight and complexity of the storage and handling systems.

Creating the combustion chamber and nozzle for the thruster using two-dimensional techniques posed a challenge. The solution was found in utilizing Micro-Electrical Mechanical Systems (MEMS), the same technique used to fabricate silicon wafers for processors. This approach not only enabled the fabrication of the thruster, but it also allowed for scalability and mass production.

The development of the ICE-Cube Thruster marks a significant milestone in the propulsion of CubeSats. Its small size, low power requirement, and use of water as a propellant make it a game-changer for the future of satellite technology.

– CubeSat: A type of miniaturized satellite used for various purposes, typically weighing under 10 kg (22 lb).
– Propellant: A substance carried on board a vehicle that is ejected to produce thrust and propel the vehicle forward.
– Electrolysis: The process of using an electric current to cause a chemical reaction, usually the decomposition of a compound into its elements.

Source: ESA