Scientists from Imperial College London have created a small rocket engine – ICE-Cube Thruster (Iridium Catalysed Electrolysis CubeSat Thruster). It is so small that it is made using a method used to manufacture semiconductor chips. The engine is designed for compact satellites, such as CubeSats, Newsatlas.com reports.
The magazine explains that since up to 90% of space launches involve placing cubesats weighing up to 10 kg in low Earth orbit, most of them are no bigger than a typical smartphone. It is very difficult to create components of the necessary size for such spacecraft. And one of those problems is the creation of rocket engines, taking into account the physical limitations of such satellites. In this case, the engines should be not only small, but also as simple as possible, non-vacuum, low power, and no toxic substances should be used in them.
The length of the ICE-Cube Thruster, developed with funding from the European Space Agency, is about 2 cm, and the length of the combustion chamber and nozzle is only 1 mm. Only 20 W of electrical current is required to operate the motor. During testing, the engine generated 1.25 mN of thrust with a continuous pulse of 185 seconds. For comparison, this is half a billion times less than the thrust generated in space engines.
However, the peculiarity of this micromotor is not the thrust force, but the fact that it uses ordinary water as fuel. With the help of electric current, electrolysis takes place, that is, hydrogen and oxygen are separated from water, which are sent into the combustion chamber, where combustion takes place, creating the propulsion force necessary for the maneuver of the satellite.
The use of water is not only environmentally friendly, but also reduces the overall weight of the device, as no complex systems are required for its storage and supply. However, to make the combustion chamber and nozzle for the engine, the scientists had to turn to microelectronics and microelectromechanical systems techniques, which are commonly used to process silicon wafers in the production of chips with sub-micrometer precision.