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Nanotechnology Gives Spacecraft Smaller Rockets

Good things come in small packages, or so the people involved in the space program believe. So, of course, they have turned to nanotechnology to make things smaller and more lightweight.

These folks are using small spacecraft satellites more and more, because they cost less and can be deployed quickly. This size of spacecraft requires in-space propulsion systems that don’t take up a lot of room or weigh much.

One solution is called the Nanoparticle Field Extraction Thruster (nanoFET). In this device, nanoparticles are charged by losing electrons when they touch an electrode at a positive voltage. After the nanoparticles are charged, an electric field can accelerate them, providing thrust to the spacecraft.

NanoFets may also be useful for spacecraft that are designed to explore other planets, such as the Galileo. Besides their small size, nanoFETs have an additional advantage in space exploration: You can vary the amount of thrust generated over a wide range by changing the voltage used to accelerate the charged nanoparticles.

This capability is useful because a spacecraft may need higher thrust when nearing a planet — to put itself into orbit about the planet or to change its orbit — than it would need while cruising between planets. NanoFETs could supply the required range of thrust without the need to build more than one type of propulsion system into the spacecraft.

Galileo spacecraft. [Credit: Courtesy of NASA]
Credit: Courtesy of NASA
Galileo spacecraft.
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