Satellites, like the people who make them, come in all shapes and sizes. Their parts do as well. And while some thrusters are large and impressive, some satellites need smaller ones. So Paulo Lozano at MIT decided to build a rocket thruster the size of a penny.
The thruster, which looks like anything but, is similar in shape and size to a computer chip. It's "covered with 500 microscopic tips that, when stimulated with voltage, emit tiny beams of ions. Together, the array of spiky tips creates a small puff of charged particles that can help propel a shoebox-sized satellite forward," according to Lozano.
The size allows for several thrusters to be put on a single satellite, which could allow it to change orbit and even roll. Though it may not sound it, this is exciting in the world of satellites. Nanosatellites have had trouble with traditional propulsion systems, which allow little space on the them for electronics and communications equipment.
But the microthruster barely adds any weight, allowing for fully-loaded nanosatellites to not only be launched into orbit but to be able to navigate once there.
On Earth, these thrusters are essentially useless. But zero-gravity space presents a very different story. And with the size and flexibility of these thrusters, this could open a new range of possibilities for satellite technology.