Engineering Students Develop Method to Keep CubeSats in Orbit Using Earth’s Magnetic Field for Propulsion

The CubeSat was designed and constructed thanks to the efforts of over 250 University of Michigan students.

(Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.)

(Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.)

A CubeSat called MiTEE, largely built by undergraduate students at the University of Michigan, was successfully deployed in January. A CubeSat is a small satellite that only weighs a few pounds. Its small size and relatively simple technology make it well-suited for educational projects about space exploration.

The students designed MiTEE to discover if small satellites could support propulsion methods that do not require any fuel. Typically, satellites within Earth’s atmosphere are slowed by the drag of atmospheric particles. To overcome this force, fuel is needed to propel the craft forward to stop it from crashing down to earth.

Due to the drag, small satellites typically do not remain in orbit very long. Their small size does not support fuel systems. However, the University of Michigan students wanted to discover if this small size could actually be advantageous.

The students are exploring if electromagnetism could be harnessed to propel the CubeSat. MiTEE consists of two cell phone-sized satellites connected by a long wire. In a news release, they explained that they could use the wire to “drive current in either direction using power from solar panels and close the electrical circuit through the Earth’s ionosphere. When a wire conducts a current in a magnetic field, that magnetic field exerts a force on the wire.”

If their theory works, they will be able to use Earth’s magnetic field to propel the craft and combat the atmospheric drag. Such a propellent-less satellite is a completely new paradigm. This discovery could have important implications for future space exploration.

MiTEE was designed and built with the assistance of more than 250 students over six years. The goal of this first satellite is to test how much current can be drawn from the ionosphere in different conditions. This first test features a deployable rigid boom instead of a wire.

CubeSats offer scaled projects well-suited to foster collaboration between students and space agencies or space-focused industries. NASA, for example, has started a SmallSat Technology Partnership initiative to create such opportunities.

Chris Baker, Small Spacecraft Technology program executive, said, “The ability for educational institutions to take technology from the laboratory to orbit with low-cost small spacecraft provides an immense source of innovation and fresh perspective in the development of new space capabilities.”

Such programs give students real-world experience and help them understand how they can apply their STEM skills to solve problems in innovative ways. Lauren Citkowski, for example, worked on the MiTEE project for two-and-a-half years. During that time, she improved her technical skills, such as soldering and assembling electronics, and communication skills needed to work in an interdisciplinary environment.

The MiTEE project did not stop with the launch of the CubeSat. The University of Michigan students will continue to research the potential of propellent-less satellite technology. In the future, they plan to launch a CubeSat with a 30-foot wire tether to see if the satellite will indeed be propelled forward.