A CubeSat is exploring the feasibility of a new propulsion method that could enable very small satellites to move around Earth’s orbit without carrying fuel. This could pave the way for tiny satellites that stay in orbit for long periods and operate in swarms, monitoring storms and natural disasters, for example.
The technique, developed at the University of Michigan, tethers two cellphone-sized small satellites with a wire 10 to 30 meters long that is able to drive current in either direction using power from solar panels and closing 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. The team plans to use the force from the Earth’s magnetic field to climb higher in orbit, compensating for the drag of the atmosphere.