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Ion thruster propels nanosat micro rockets

03 Sep 2013

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King's team was trying to make an ionic liquid that behaved like a ferrofluid when they learned about a research team at the University of Sydney that was already making these substances. The Sydney team was using magnetic nanoparticles made by the life-sciences company Sirtex, which are used to treat liver cancer. "They sent us a sample, and we've used it to develop a thruster," King said. "Now we have a nice collaboration going. It's amazing that the same technology used to treat cancer can also function as a micro rocket for spacecraft."

King's first thruster is made of a one-inch block of aluminium containing a small ring of the special fluid. When a magnet is placed beneath the block, the liquid forms a tiny, five-tipped crown. When an electric force is then applied to the ferrofluid crown liquid jets emerge from each point, producing thrust. "It's fascinating to watch," King says. "The peaks get taller and skinnier, and taller and skinnier, and at some point the rounded tips instantly pop into nano-sharp points and start emitting ions."

The thruster appears to be almost immune to permanent damage. The tips automatically heal themselves and re-grow if they are somehow damaged. King's team has already demonstrated its self-healing properties, albeit inadvertently. "We accidentally turned the voltage up too high, and the tips exploded in a small arc," King says. While this would spell death for a typical thruster, "A completely new crown immediately formed from the remaining ferrofluid and once again resumed thrusting."

Their thruster isn't ready to push a satellite around in orbit just yet. "First we have to really understand what is happening on a microscopic level, and then develop a larger prototype based on what we learn," King said. "We're not quite there yet; we can't build a person out of liquid, like the notorious villain from the Terminator movies. But we're pretty sure we can build a rocket engine."


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