2017.B.3.3. All-Electric CubeSat Propulsion Technologies


Daniel Courtney (1)
Michael Tsay (1)
Nathaniel Demmons (1)

  1. Busek Co. Inc., United States of America




Electric propulsion


In late 2018 the first interplanetary CubeSats will fly to Mars on JPL’s MarCO mission. NASA’s SLS EM-1 CubeSats will launch to the Moon around the same timeframe. Advances in small satellite technologies have enabled these missions and will allow increasingly complex CubeSat missions to deep space destinations. Either individually in larger U-form factors, in constellations, or as supplements to large-scale missions, CubeSats are ushering in a new paradigm in solar system exploration. One key enabling technology is the miniaturization of highly sophisticated electric propulsion (EP). Busek is flight-qualifying a CubeSat ion engine that enables high-deltaV (>2km/s) missions for >6U bus. Concurrently, Busek is developing high control authority, CubeSat electrospray thrusters that are ideal for a deep space Reaction Control Systems (RCS). Whether used independently or combined, the primary ion propulsion and the electrospray RCS provide CubeSats unprecedented high delta-V mobility and jitter-free, sub-arcsecond pointing accuracy that could enable laser communications and extremely stable CubeSat observatories.

Busek has several different configurations of ion engines and electrospray thrusters that are suitable for CubeSat applications; this presentation focuses on the development status and test data of the iodine-fueled RF ion engine “BIT-3” and the passive “BET-100-P” and “BET-300-P” electrospray thrusters. Example mission analyses will be given based on 6U and 12U CubeSat architectures, using high-TRL EP solutions.

The BIT-3 ion engine is identified as the world’s first iodine-fueled gridded ion engine. It is currently at CDR level maturity and scheduled to fly on the SLS EM-1 Lunar IceCube and LunaH-Map missions. The system envelope is 180×88×102mm (~1.6U) and weighs 3kg wet, which includes 1.5kg of solid-storable iodine propellant. The BIT-3 system was recently verified (with direct laboratory measurements) to produce 1mN thrust and 2,130sec Isp at approx. 70W system input power. It has been recognized as having the highest volumetric total impulse (>23,000N-sec/U) among SOA CubeSat propulsion systems.


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