Canberra engineer helps develop ‘game changer’ iodine electric propulsion system for satellites

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A Canberra-based engineer helped develop the world’s first propulsion system hoped to allow satellites to avoid space debris.

For decades, space agencies have sought an alternative propulsion system to ion electric motors powered by xenon gas, which is expensive, heavy and rare.

Working remotely for Paris-based company ThrustMe, lead engineer Trevor Lafleur helped develop a propulsion system that uses iodine as an inexpensive and compact fuel.

“Because iodine can be stored in solid form and you don’t need those heavy, high pressure storage tanks, we can actually miniaturize the entire propulsion system,” Dr. Lafleur said. .

“It really is a game changer and now means we can provide pre-powered propulsion systems, which was not really possible before.”

The iodine system was successfully tested in orbit in November last year, the results of which were published this week in the scientific journal Nature.

“Our work shows that iodine is not only a viable alternative propellant for xenon, but also gives improved performance,” wrote the authors of the report.

“We predict that these results will accelerate the adoption of alternative thrusters within the space industry and demonstrate the potential of iodine for a wide range of space missions.”

Changing the way small satellites orbit

The propulsion system, which uses iodine as a cheap and compact fuel, was successfully tested in space last year.(Provided: ThrustMe)

For larger satellites, the report’s authors say an iodine-based propellant “that can be stored without pressure will help simplify satellite design and propulsion system integration.”

But iodine propulsion systems should be particularly effective for small satellites.

“Many small satellites are now launched into space by carpooling, which means they share the launch with a much larger and more expensive satellite, and that roughly dictates the orbit in which these satellites are placed.” , said Dr. Lafleur.

“If it’s not the orbit you want, either you’re stuck there or you have to wait for a more attractive launch option. [to] go up.

Dr Lafleur said debris created by a Russian weapons test that targeted an old satellite earlier this week highlighted the need for small spacecraft to maneuver around space debris more easily.

“This creates a real risk of collision for them,” he explained.

“There are over 25,000 satellites to be launched in the next 10 years and there is already a lot of space debris up there.”

“World premieres will continue to perform from Canberra”

A man stands in front of a whiteboard writing a code.
Dr Lafleur is based in Canberra but his colleagues work in France.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Despite being in a world away from his colleagues in France, Dr Lafleur said there are advantages to working in the Australian capital.

“Canberra is surrounded by a lot of very good research institutes and there is now an emerging space industry, so it seemed like a perfect place,” he said.

Industry players in the capital had high hopes that Canberra could become a hub of activity for Australia’s space industry before the federal government announced that the national space agency would be headquartered in Adelaide.

But Canberra Innovation Network chief executive Petr Adámek said the announcement – and the pandemic – had not held back the number of tech and space industry startups looking to establish themselves in ACT.

“It’s about people; the people are concentrated around the knowledge institutes here, ”Mr. Adámek said.


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