The staff of the Plasma Jet Engines Laboratory of LaPlas Institute at the National Research Nuclear University together with the representatives of SPUTNIX (part of the SITRONICS Group) started testing of the first Russian plasma propulsion system for use at small spacecraft. Nanosats equipped with plasma jet engines can autonomously hold themselves in position in orbit and at the end of their life lower the orbit height, thus 2-3 times reducing the time before they burn in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
The plasma propulsion system named VERA (Volume-Effective Rocket Propulsion Assembly) will become the first in Russia and among the first in the world suitable for installation at CubeSat 3U spacecraft that weigh up to 4 kg. The small size and weight of the engine will make it possible to establish and maintain in orbit clusters of dozens of nanosats.
Besides the engine itself, the fully completed propulsion system that is now under testing comprises compact high-voltage converters that supply power to the engine from the onboard low-voltage electric system, and an electronic control board receiving digital commands that control all the processes inside the system.
“The developers of nanosat clusters face the problem of unavailability of sufficiently compact propulsion systems that allow the satellites to get to required position and then efficiently maintain it in orbit for a long time. With the VERA engine, this problem will be solved, which will give a powerful impulse to the development of a new generation of affordable satellite systems,” said Igor Egorov, Head of Plasma and Jet Engines Laboratory of LaPlas Institute.
SPUTNIX is preparing for launch two CubeSat 3U nanosats that will use this type of propulsion systems. Satellites with new engines are produced and will be launched into space within the Space PI program supported by the Innovations Promotion Fund. The launch is scheduled for next year, when engine testing during the actual flight will be conducted.
“Despite a small size, nanosats can perform a variety of tasks, which earlier have been solved using much more massive and expensive spacecraft. Nanosats can do remote Earth sounding (ERS), including early detection of natural disasters. They can collect data on marine and air vessels movement (AIS, ADS-B), support the so-called “Internet of Things” (IoT), and provide communication with remote automatic weather and oceanographic stations along the Northern Sea Route,” remarked Nikolay Pozhidaev, Sitronics Group President.
Another important issue that can be solved with the help of the new plasma engine is the problem of space debris. Usually, nanosats remain in orbit for over ten years after the completion of their use, before the upper atmosphere clears them from the Earth’s orbit. All this time, there is a threat that an unused nanosat might run into an operating, or maybe even piloted spacecraft. Nanosats equipped with jet engines can autonomously lower their orbit height at the end of their life, thus 2-3 times reducing the time until they burn in the upper atmosphere.