There are dozens of mobile phone-sized nanosatellites floating around in Earth's orbit. These satellites are used for everything from student research missions to top secret projects by the Department of Defense. Getting nanosatellites into the correct position in space is often problematic: they're carried into orbit by larger rockets, but they don't always end up where they're supposed to be. In space, the nanosatellites need micro rocket engines to get them into position, but those engines are very fragile and expensive to create. Scientists at Michigan Tech, though, have discovered that a technology used for cancer treatment could provide a solution to the problem.
Worldwide, scientists are attempting to build these mini engines by using tiny needles thinner than a single human hair. Those needles emit thin streams of an ionic fluid that act as thrusters for a miniature spacecraft. Each spacecraft would need around 200 of these needles to give the proper amount of thrust for a nanosatellite. But these expensive needles are extremely fragile and can be destroyed by something as simple as bumping up against them. Therefore, this technology is not considered a workable option.
However, the team at Michigan Tech developed a solution by researching a liquid called a ferrofluid. Ferrofluids have magnetic nanoparticles that move when presented with magnetic force. Because this happens naturally, they're inexpensive and easier to work with. The Michigan Tech team, though, didn't have to come up with the technology on their own: a research team at the University of Sydney had already been using ferrofluids to treat liver cancer. Once the two teams started working together, they discovered the solution for the micro rocket problem.
After testing the ferrofluids for the micro rocket engine, the Michigan Tech team found out something cool: the sharp tips in the liquid needed for thrust would regenerate if damaged. Of course, as is the case with most science, accident led to the discovery: during an experiment, they turned the voltage up too high and the tips of the ferrofluids exploded. But after the explosion, the fluid re-organized itself and began to re-form the tips, similar to the villain in Terminator 2.
More testing, along with larger prototypes, are required before the ferrofluids are ready to push nanosatellites around in space, but the Michigan Tech scientists are confident that this technology will enable them to build a better micro rocket engine.
Via Michigan Tech