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Single array of 400 electrospray needles is demonstrated, with 300-µm-tall structures, tapered and grooved sidewalls, and sharp tips.

MDL News & Trends

MEP will Enable Nanosats with Extraordinary Propulsion Capability

MEP technology is highly compact, with microfabricated components, a capillary‑ force-driven feed system, and solid high-density indium metal propellant that are all integrated into the thruster head for a highly distributable propulsion architecture with a very high delta-v capability on very small spacecraft. This thruster technology would provide both primary propulsion and attitude control with eight thrusters to enable interplanetary CubeSats and CubeSats for Earth orbit with much greater orbit maneuvering capabilities than large spacecraft. It operates at a specific impulse of > 5000 s to enable 1000 m/s of delta-v capability on a 3U CubeSat with only 60 grams of indium in a volume less than 10 cm3. CubeSat swarms with MEP could be released to characterize asteroids. CubeSats with MEP could return samples from Mars. They could be released from much larger spacecraft to assemble into complex architectures.

MEP thruster on a micronewton thrust stand in a 2-meter-diameter vacuum chamber for testing.

MEP will Enable New Spacecraft Control Paradigms

Several thrusters can be distributed on very small or very large spacecraft to provide attitude control to much higher precision than reaction wheels while significantly reducing system mass, volume, and control complexity. Study results suggest that MEP could precision point exoplanet observatories to 40 times better precision than that of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is currently state of the art in pointing precision. They would enable eliminating reaction wheels, vibration isolation hexapods, and hydrazine thrusters to off-load them. They will have the capability to operate continuously for years using only hundreds of grams of indium propellant. The high-voltage power-processing units are under development to integrate with single or multiple thrusters on 10x10 cm, enabling distribution of complete propulsion system units with control of any of the integrated systems via several low-voltage wires only to the spacecraft avionics unit.