Spacecraft using new kind of new fuel could transform the space industry

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Engineers have successfully tested a spacecraft powered by iodine in a development that could help replace spacecraft.

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At the moment, spacecraft using electric propulsion usually use xenon. But it is expensive, difficult to store and rare to find.

As such, the space industry needs a propellant to change that and help address those issues. One possibility is iodine.


Iodine is cheaper, more readily available, and can be stored in its solid form. It has also been found to be more efficient when used in tests on Earth.

Until now, however, a spacecraft has never been fully propelled by an electric propulsion system using iodine.

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Side view of a flight model of the NPT30-I2 iodine electric propulsion system firing in the vacuum chamber

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Side view of a flight model of the NPT30-I2 iodine electric propulsion system firing in the vacuum chamber

However, in a new test, engineers were able to use such a spacecraft as a small satellite in Earth orbit. The new propulsion was demonstrated on a 20 kg satellite launched a year earlier, which was later verified using satellite tracking information.

They found that not only did iodine work, it was more efficient than xenon when used in space.

The research is reported in a new study, titled ‘In-orbit Demonstration of Iodine Electric Propulsion Systems,’ published in Nature Today.

In an accompanying article, scientists Igor Levchenko and Katerina Bazaka said the findings could be a “game changer” in the use of small satellites.

Such small satellites have become a central part of space exploration and projects in recent years. In 2011, 39 such small satellites were launched into space, and that increased to 389 in 2019 – in 2020, however, 1,202 of them were put into orbit.

It is expected to increase further in the coming years. SpaceX hopes to put 42,000 satellites into space to power its StarlingSpace internet system alone, and so a change of propellant could make such projects significantly cheaper.

That huge network of satellites is safer and more agile if they are able to move themselves to act as constellations. But getting them to such constellations depends on engines mounted on satellites – and those engines have so far largely relied on xenon.

The system can also help with other projects. In the future, engineers hope to be able to build instruments in space to take advantage of the effects of zero-gravity – and if the product can be more efficiently taken out of orbit and back to Earth So they’ll be able to do it more cheaply. ,

However, iodine has its own problems that will need to be addressed before the technology goes mainstream. For example, it is corrosive, and therefore can damage not only the engines’ own spacecraft but also other satellites.


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