Satellite Propulsion: Innovators Advancing the Capabilities of Small Satellites

May 20, 2024
The Role of Satellites in Everyday Technology: Unseen Infrastructure That Powers Modern Life

Table Of Contents

Satellite propulsion systems are a cornerstone of modern space exploration, essential for controlling and modifying the trajectories of spacecraft. As the small satellite market continues to expand, innovators within the industry are developing propulsion technologies that aim to push these compact marvels to their full potential. Small satellites, commonly referred to as smallsats, range from microsatellites weighing up to a few hundred kilograms to CubeSats that are as light as just a few kilograms. These advancements in propulsion not only enhance the maneuverability and lifespan of smallsats but also address the critical need for more efficient and cost-effective solutions in this rapidly evolving sector.

Satellite Propulsion - Small satellites orbiting Earth, propelled by innovative technology. Solar panels gleaming in the sunlight as they power the satellite's propulsion system

As the capabilities of smallsats grow, so does the necessity for propulsion systems that cater precisely to their unique constraints and mission objectives. Electric propulsion, which provides a high-efficiency alternative to traditional chemical engines, is garnering significant attention for its potential to reduce propellant mass while providing sustained thrust over long durations. Meanwhile, green propellant technologies are emerging to replace toxic substances, like hydrazine, with more environmentally friendly alternatives. Together, these developments are enabling intricate orbit mechanics and satellite maneuvering, ensuring smallsats are not limited by their size but empowered by their agility and adaptability.

Key Takeaways

  • Propulsion innovations are essential for enhancing the control and longevity of small satellites.
  • Electric and green propellant technologies offer efficient and eco-friendly alternatives to traditional chemical engines.
  • Advancements in propulsion contribute to precise orbit maneuvering and increased mission capabilities for smallsats.

Foundations of Satellite Propulsion

Satellite propulsion is a critical component in controlling the trajectory, orbit, and orientation of satellites. Propulsion systems enable satellites to perform orbital maneuvers, maintain their position in space (station-keeping), and eventually deorbit at the end of their mission.

Key Propulsion Technologies:

  • Chemical Propulsion: Traditional, high-thrust capability, ideal for launch and major orbital changes.
  • Electric Propulsion: More efficient, uses less propellant, provides fine control for station-keeping and orbital adjustments.

The research and development in propulsion technologies have seen significant advancements over the years, and the space industry continually works on innovative solutions to make satellites more maneuverable and cost-effective.

Recent Innovations:

  • Electrospray and Ion Thrusters: Enhanced precision in orbital maneuvering.
  • Green Propellants: Reduced environmental impact and increased safety.

Through incorporating recent advancements and maintaining an ongoing commitment to development, the space industry strives to achieve more sustainable and efficient propulsion methods. These technologies not only improve mission longevity and capabilities but also pave the way for future innovations in space exploration.

Advancements in Electric Propulsion

Electric propulsion systems have been pivotal in the evolution of space technology, significantly expanding the capabilities of small satellites. These advancements offer improved maneuverability, longer mission lifetimes, and reductions in cost and mass, enabling more ambitious missions for small spacecraft.

Ion Thrusters

Ion thrusters represent a major leap for electric propulsion, utilizing electrical energy to ionize propellant and create thrust. A key benefit is their high specific impulse compared to conventional chemical propulsion, translating to more efficient fuel usage. Innovations include miniaturized ion thrusters suitable for small satellites, enhancing their suitability for deep space missions. The Recent progress and perspectives of space electric propulsion systems have featured the integration of next-generation nanomaterials, leading to considerable performance gains.

Hall Effect Thrusters

Hall Effect Thrusters (HETs) have also seen remarkable advancements. They work by accelerating ionized gas through a magnetic field, and the latest models now offer greater scalability and better functionality for small satellites. Research centers, such as NASA’s Glenn Research Center, have been pivotal in developing large, high-power electric propulsion (EP) systems and adapting this technology for smaller-scale use.

Gridded Ion Thrusters

Meanwhile, Gridded Ion Thrusters are another avenue where significant strides have been made. They are recognized for their precision and reliability. The advancement in these types of thrusters includes enhanced grids and innovated ion acceleration techniques. New technologies like the Maxwell Block 2, with its improved modularity and performance, demonstrate these ongoing refinements. Gridded Ion Thrusters continue to push the envelope in terms of power and efficiency, establishing new possibilities for small satellite propulsion.

Chemical Propulsion and Green Technologies

In the domain of satellite propulsion, the emerging preference for green alternatives is reframing how we approach chemical propulsion systems. These technological strides aim to enhance efficiencies while mitigating environmental impacts.

Green Propellants

Replacing traditional hydrazine-based propulsion, green propellants emerge as a less-toxic solution, promoting safer handling and more efficient performance. A prime example is the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), which NASA has developed to demonstrate the potential of such technology. These new propellants offer a myriad of advantages, including higher fuel efficiency and lower toxicity, significantly improving spacecraft sustainability and crew safety.

Resistojet Thrusters

Resistojet thrusters represent a subset of electric propulsion, utilizing simple resistive heating to increase the temperature of a non-reactive propellant like ammonia. The heated propellant expands and is expelled through a nozzle, producing thrust. They are typically seen on smaller satellites due to their simplicity, cost-effectiveness, and reliability. Resistojet thrusters, leveraging non-toxic propellants, bolster the shift towards greener propulsion methods in the aerospace industry.

Orbit Mechanics and Satellite Maneuvering

Understanding the complexities of orbit mechanics is essential for the operation of satellites. The precise control of a satellite’s trajectory calls for careful execution of various maneuvers to maintain, adjust, or terminate its orbit.

Orbit Raising

Orbit raising involves adjustments to a satellite’s altitude. Typically, after launch, a satellite may initially reside in a lower parking orbit. Engineers then command the satellite to execute a series of propulsive burns, increasing its velocity at specific points in the orbit. This process successively expands the apogee (the orbit’s highest point) until the satellite reaches its desired operational orbit.

Station Keeping

Station keeping is the process of maintaining a satellite in its assigned orbit slot, counteracting perturbations like gravitational pull from celestial bodies or the pressure from solar radiation. This maneuver usually requires small, periodic thrusts that correct any drift to keep the satellite’s position stable within a specific box in space defined by longitude and latitude limits.

Deorbit Maneuvers

When a satellite completes its mission, it must be safely removed from active orbits to reduce space debris. Deorbit maneuvers involve intentional actions to lower a satellite’s altitude, guiding it on a trajectory that will lead to reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it generally burns up, or to a graveyard orbit.

Satellite maneuvering, whether for orbit raising, station keeping, or deorbit strategies, ensures that these skyward assets perform optimally throughout their mission lifespans while also adhering to space sustainability practices.

Small Satellite Design and Capabilities

Small satellite technology has revolutionized space exploration by providing a versatile platform for scientific research and commercial applications. These compact devices are engineered to harness innovative propulsion methods and house essential instrumentation within a restricted volume.

Cubesats and Nanosatellites

Cubesats and nanosatellites represent a significant leap in space technology, known for their standardized dimensions and scalability. Cubesats, typically measuring 10x10x10 centimeters for a single unit and having a mass of up to 1.33 kilograms, are often deployed in low Earth orbit for various tasks such as earth observation and communication. Their design simplicity and relatively low cost have attracted academic institutions and private companies alike.

Some noteworthy advancements include deployable structures for small satellites that enhance their functionality, such as acceleration in deorbit and solar sail propulsion. The introduction of the High Compaction Ratio (HCR) reflector by L3Harris Technologies exemplifies the integration of large-aperture antennas into small satellite platforms, extending their communication capabilities.

Thrust Requirements and Payload Capacity

The propulsion needs of small satellites, including cubesats and nanosatellites, are typically less demanding compared to larger counterparts, yet they are critical for precise maneuvering, orbit maintenance, and end-of-life deorbiting. To address these requirements, developers have created miniaturized propulsion systems that provide adequate thrust while conforming to the satellites’ limited payload capacities.

One such development to note is Space Dynamics Laboratory’s patented miniaturized propulsion system, specifically designed to enhance the maneuverability of CubeSats. The inherent challenges of micropropulsion technologies, such as thrust efficiency and fuel capacity, are being continually addressed to bolster the mission duration and functionalities of nanoavionics platforms.


By incorporating emerging technologies like micropropulsion and by enhancing communication capabilities through large-aperture antennas, small satellites have achieved an unprecedented level of functionality, propelling the field of space exploration forward.

Space Environment and Debris Mitigation

Advancing satellite propulsion technology is vital for maintaining space sustainability; however, it is equally crucial to address the challenges of space debris and collision avoidance. These efforts are essential to protect valuable assets in space and preserve the orbital environment for future missions.

Collision Avoidance

Satellites equipped with small-scale propulsion systems enhance their ability to perform maneuvers to avoid potential collisions. The incorporation of automated and real-time tracking data allows satellites to proactively adjust their orbits, reducing the risk of impact with other objects. Such capabilities are not only a technological demonstration but also a proactive commitment to space sustainability.

Space Debris Management

Several methods are being developed for active debris removal, with technology demonstration missions focusing on the effectiveness of various solutions. These include techniques like net capture, harpoons, and robotic arms to secure and deorbit debris. Additionally, end-of-life deorbit systems are becoming a standard design component, ensuring that satellites do not contribute to long-term debris upon mission completion. International cooperation and regulatory frameworks, like the guidelines laid out in reports from NASA and the FCC, facilitate these advancements, bolstering global efforts towards responsible space debris management.

In-Depth Look at New Propulsion Companies

The realm of satellite propulsion is witnessing significant advancements thanks to the innovative technologies introduced by emerging companies. They are demonstrating capabilities that may redefine how small satellites maneuver and perform in space.

Innovations by Enpulsion and Morpheus Space

Enpulsion, a company based out of Austria, has taken the small satellite industry by storm with its cutting-edge Field Emission Electric Propulsion (FEEP) technology. Their compact and efficient thrusters are designed for precise maneuvering of small satellites. Morpheus Space, originating from Germany, introduces its own innovative Nano Field Effect Electric Propulsion (NanoFEEP) thrusters, pushing the envelope in scalability and modularity of satellite propulsion.

Enpulsion’s systems are recognized for their ability to be immediately integrated into satellites, offering a plug-and-play solution significantly reducing the complexity of satellite assembly. On the other hand, Morpheus Space provides AI-based propulsion control systems, revolutionizing satellite fleet management with autonomous collision avoidance and formation flying features.

Contributions from Accion Systems and Apollo Fusion

Accion Systems specializes in ion electrospray propulsion systems that stand out due to their scalable array of thrusters which provide unprecedented control and flexibility. Their TILE (Tiled Ionic Liquid Electrospray) propulsors are revolutionary for enabling precise thrust and low-cost mass production.

Simultaneously, Apollo Fusion, known for its disruptive electric propulsion technology, has enabled longer missions with its innovative systems. Their Hall thrusters promise to extend small satellite lifespans and capabilities, making interplanetary missions more accessible. Accion Systems not only advances electric propulsion but also participates in critical partnerships for satellite electric propulsion systems, aiming to foster a new standard in the industry.

Both companies are at the forefront of the electric propulsion wave, offering mature and versatile options to a growing small satellite market, allowing for extended missions and broader exploration possibilities.

Frequently Asked Questions

With the ever-evolving space technology landscape, questions abound regarding the impact of new propulsion systems on small satellites. These advancements contribute to extended mission durations, improved maneuverability, and expanded capabilities of small spacecraft.

How is electric propulsion transforming the capabilities of small satellites?

Electric propulsion is granting small satellites much higher efficiency and longer operational lifespans than traditional chemical thrusters. The use of electrically powered systems allows for significant mass and fuel savings, giving small satellites the ability to perform complex maneuvers and maintain orbit for extended periods.

What advancements have been made in ion thruster technology for small spacecraft?

Ion thruster technology has seen considerable improvements, notably in miniaturization and efficiency, making it a viable option for small spacecraft. Enhanced ion thrusters provide greater thrust-to-weight ratios, allowing small satellites to undertake missions previously feasible only for larger platforms.

What are the latest innovations in space propulsion for CubeSats?

Recent innovations in space propulsion for CubeSats include the development of modular and scalable propulsion systems. These advancements enable CubeSats to perform high-precision maneuvers and change orbits, vastly increasing their functionality and range of mission types they can undertake.

In what ways are green propellants influencing small satellite missions?

Green propellants are influencing small satellite missions by offering a safer and more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional toxic rocket fuels. They promise to reduce the risk of handling and storage while maintaining, or even enhancing, the performance of small satellite propulsion systems.

How are miniaturized propulsion systems influencing satellite constellation designs?

Miniaturized propulsion systems are allowing satellite constellations to become more versatile and cost-effective. As these systems require less space and power, they facilitate the incorporation of propulsion into smaller satellites, which can lead to more strategic constellation designs and responsive networks.

What is the impact of advanced propulsion on the lifespan and maneuverability of small satellites?

Advanced propulsion is impacting the lifespan and maneuverability of small satellites by enabling longer missions and providing the ability to dodge space debris, respectively. These systems vastly improve a satellite’s ability to reposition, which enhances not only its life expectancy but also the overall robustness of its mission profile.

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