In this post we provide an overview of CubeSat thrusters and in-space propulsion technologies for smaller satellites, and share details of various products on the global market – if you’re familiar with this technology and would like to skip straight to the product listings, please click here.
There is growing demand for in-space propulsion systems that enable small satellites to achieve attitude and orbit control, orbital transfers, and end-of-life deorbiting.
This is particularly important for the slew of LEO and MEO constellations currently being developed, as constellation control will be an important factor in the success of these ventures.
Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of activity in the smallsat propulsion world, driven by technology breakthroughs, industry commercialization, and private investment.
In this article, we provide a gentle primer to the topic of selecting a thruster for a smallsat mission, and give an overview of some of the propulsion products making waves within the global marketplace for space.
Do you know of any smallsat thrusters that we’ve missed? Please drop us a note at [email protected] or on Twitter. Alternatively, if you’d like to list your products and services on satsearch, get started here.
Selecting the most appropriate thruster product for a CubeSat can be a tricky challenge.
Rapid growth of the NewSpace sector has led to greater use of modular components, like thrusters. Picking the right thruster is imperative towards ensuring success of your CubeSat mission.
In this article, we look at some of the factors that should be taken into account to make this decision. We also provide an overview of a number of propulsion products on the market, listed on the satsearch platform to help you select the best option.
Your CubeSat thruster requirements
We recommend a simple 4-step approach for a preliminary selection of a thruster for a CubeSat, as explained below:
- Specify your exact mission parameters
- Record all known design specifications of the CubeSat
- Consider the range of technology that will be used in the system
- Take into account the key performance criteria
Your mission parameters
The first step is to fully understand the full set of mission parameters, including both the critical applications and desirable, but not necessarily essential, objectives.
Knowing exactly what functions your thruster will need to perform, and on what schedule and duration, will make selecting a model easier.
Also consider the launch stresses, testing processes and regulatory compliance that the CubeSat will need to go through, in order to make it into orbit, as well as any obsolescence procedures once the mission is complete.
Your CubeSat’s physical specifications
Next, keep to hand all currently known design information about the CubeSat unit.
This can include the volume, weight, primary structural material and more basic things such as the location, storage and transport arrangements of the major components.
You will need to make sure that the thruster you choose will be suitable for these parameters.
Your full range of tech
Once you are clear on exactly what tasks the thruster will need to perform and the design characteristics of the CubeSat, the next consideration is the technology that will sit alongside the thruster to make sure everything is compatible (and fits in the unit in the first place!)
You may not yet know the full range of accompanying tech (and you might need to first choose the thruster in order to make decisions on other components), but make sure you have access to the technical specifications of all the other sub-systems and structural components that are most likely to be used per the current plans.
Key performance criteria
Now you’re armed with the knowledge of what the thruster needs to do, work alongside and fit within, you can make an informed decision from the available products, based on your required performance characteristics.
Some of the potential key specifications and performance criteria to evaluate are:
- Size and weight – Will it fit? Is it too heavy? The physical volume (usually expressed in CubeSat units / U) and on-Earth weight determine what other components can be used in the unit and impact transport and launch costs.
- Specific impulse – What specific impulse values are required for your CubeSat and intended applications?
- Electric or chemical – This is a big debate and beyond this article to go into in detail. Both classes of propulsion technologies can perform very well for CubeSats and should be evaluated for any potential system.
- Flight heritage – Is this thruster fully tested in space? You need to know that the system will survive the launch and operate as expected in microgravity, so it is important to look at the product’s history.
- Operating power – What power supply can your CubeSat use to operate the thruster? What input will work best with other systems and maintain safety and efficiency?
- Thruster delta-V capability – What changes in velocity does the thruster need to produce in order to carry out the maneuvers required in the mission?
- Integration requirements – Do you require a simple plug-and-play system? Or do your CubeSat’s needs and mission parameters dictate a more customizable solution?
These provide a snippet of the technical details that are necessary to evaluate as part of your selection process. In addition, there are the typical criteria for any major purchase such as; cost, delivery time, supplier reputation and location, contract details and maintenance conditions to take into account.
Finally, it’s important to know that selection of a thruster for your CubeSat is an iteratively process, as is the case for virtually every other component of your overall system.
CubeSat thrusters on the market
In this section, you can find a range of CubeSat thruster products available on the global market. These listings will be updated when new in-space propulsion systems for CubeSats are added to the global marketplace for space at satsearch.co – so please check back for more or sign up for our mailing list for all the updates.
We have also put together an overview of Electrical Power Systems (EPS) and On-board computers (OBC), as well as many other categories of space services and sub-systems available on the market.
Click on any of the links or images below to find out more about the systems. You can also submit a request for a quote, documentation or further information on each of the products listed or send us a more general query to discuss your specific needs, and we will use our global networks of suppliers to find a system to meet your specifications.
Enpulsion manufactures an array of modular electric propulsion systems for small satellites. The propellant is stored in an inert, non-pressurized tank during launch, and some earlier models were developed for European Space Agency (ESA) science missions.
Enpulsion has flown 50 thrusters in space and has delivered over 150 for further testing and development, prior to launch. In recent years the company has focussed on enabling serial production and in December 2019 its management system was awarded the ISO 9001:2015 certification. The portfolio consists of:
The ENPULSION NANO – featuring a > 5000 N s total impulse, 2000 — 6000 s specific impulse and 330 µN nominal thrust with a 10 — 350 µN dynamic thrust range. The thruster has a wet mass of 900 g and a dry mass of 680 g.
The NANO R³ – featuring a > 5000 N s total impulse, 2000 — 6000 s specific impulse and 350 µN nominal thrust with a 10 — 350 µN dynamic thrust range. The thruster has a wet mass of < 1420 g and a dry mass of < 1200 g.
The NANO AR³ – featuring a > 5000 N s total impulse, 2000 — 6000 s specific impulse and 350 µN nominal thrust with a 10 — 350 µN dynamic thrust range. The thruster has a wet mass of < 1450 g and a dry mass of < 1230 g.
The NANO IR³ – featuring a > 4000 N s total impulse, 2500 — 4000 s specific impulse and 500 µN nominal thrust with a 10 — 500 µN dynamic thrust range. The thruster has a wet mass of < 1420 g and a dry mass of < 1200 g.
The MICRO R³ – featuring a > 50 kN s total impulse, 1500 — 6000 s specific impulse and 1 mN nominal thrust with a 200 µN – 1.35 mN dynamic thrust range. The thruster has a wet mass of 3.9 kg and a dry mass of 2.6 kg, both figures include PPU.
The PM200 brings high thrust propulsion capability to 3-12U CubeSats. Low system complexity and zero propellant toxicity allow for simple and robust operations, both on the ground and when in orbit. The medium tank pressure and high storage density of liquid propellants enable high safety factor tanks to be used with little mass penalty. The standard 1U configuration of the PM200 propulsion module can deliver in excess of 230 m/s of velocity increment to a 3U CubeSat of 4 kg at a nominal thrust level of 0.5 N. The system can be seamlessly integrated with the iADCS400 to provide a fully integrated GNC and ADCS solution. In addition, the PM200 offers active thrust vector control to minimize disturbance torque on the satellite platform.
The EPSS C1 and EPSS C2 by NanoAvionics
NanoAvionics offers propulsion systems designed to offer high-performance and environmentally-friendly solutions for CubeSat control. The propulsion systems are modular in design and can be scaled by adjusting the volume of the tank to accommodate different propellant quantity needs. The system uses “green” Ammonium Dinitramide (ADN) based monopropellant which has a 6% higher specific impulse and 24% higher energy density compared to hydrazine-employed systems, enabling significant levels of thrust in a relatively small storage volume.
The models available are:
The EPSS C1 Propulsion System – for 1U CubeSats. The system is 1.3U in size and produces a thrust of 1N BOL to 0.22N EOL per thruster. They have a dry mass of 1 kg and wet mass of 1.2 kg, and a specific impulse of 213 seconds.
The EPSS C2 Propulsion System – for 2U CubeSats. The system is 2U in size and produces a thrust of 1N BOL to 0.22N EOL per thruster. They have a dry mass of 1.7 kg and wet mass of 2.5 kg, and a specific impulse of 214 seconds.
The Comet CubeSat and Microsatellite Water Thruster by Bradford Space is a simple, launch-safe, and cost-effective electrothermal propulsion system that uses water as a propellant. Comet thrusters are the ideal balance of cost and performance, occupying a place in the market between low-cost, low-performance cold gas and resistojets, and high-cost, high-performance monopropellant and electric systems. The Comet design is scalable from CubeSats to small microsatellites, with a highly-flexible interface suitable for a wide range of spacecraft sizes. Comet thrusters are inert, launch-safe, and also safe for deployment from the International Space Station.
The thruster portfolio of ECAPS
ECAPS by Bradford Space manufactures a range of propulsion systems that can be tailored to meet customer-specific requirements. The systems feature a non-toxic propellant which is based on ADN (Ammonium DiNitrimide). This propellant is non-carcinogenic and is typically less toxic and simpler to handle than hydrazine. The thrusters are based on ECAPS’ High Performance Green Propulsion (HPGP) technology which is designed to provide a higher specific impulse (by ≥ 6%) and higher propellant density (by 24%) than alternative methods. COTS components with flight heritage are used in the systems and ECAPS also offers support for launch site fuelling procedures. The product portfolio consists of:
- 100 mN HPGP Thruster – suited to small satellites and CubeSats, with a mass of 0.04 kg and a minimum impulse bit of < 5 mN s.
- 1N HPGP Thruster – designed for attitude and orbit control of small-sized satellites with 46 1N HPGP thrusters being demonstrated to date aboard the PRISMA spacecraft and the SkySat series. Featuring a mass of 0.38 kg and a minimum impulse bit < 70 mN s.
- 1N GP Thruster – an in-development variant of the 1N HPGP. The product can be provided individually or as an integrated system, and has a mass of 0.38 kg and a minimum impulse bit of < 70 mN s.
- 5N HPGP Thruster – designed for attitude, trajectory and orbit control of small and medium satellites, the system is currently undergoing a test fire campaign with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center where it is being examined for potential use for an interplanetary mission. Featuring a mass of 0.48 kg and a minimum impulse bit of < 0.1 N s.
- 22N HPGP Thruster – designed for attitude, trajectory and orbit control of larger satellites and for systems such as propulsive payload adaptor rings. Featuring a mass of 1.1 kg, a minimum impulse bit of < 0.44 N s, and a thrust range of 5.5 — 22 N.
- 50N HPGP Thruster – designed for attitude, trajectory and orbit control of larger satellites, including geostationary satellites, or launch vehicle applications. This thruster is currently in development and ECAPS is looking for partners to collaborate with in order to take this further. Featuring a mass of 2.1 kg, a minimum impulse bit of < 2.5 N s, and a thrust range of 12.5 — 50 N.
- 200N HPGP Thruster – designed for launch vehicle upper-stage reaction control and potential defense applications. This thruster is currently in development and ECAPS is looking for partners to collaborate with in order to take this further. The majority of the investigations to date have related to various launch vehicle upper stage programs, including the Ariane 5ME, and for various spacecraft orbit-raising applications.
One of the highest thrust electric propulsion systems on the market – able to dramatically reduce the time needed to carry out propulsion while maintaining a high total impulse density to minimize the impact on your system. The ExoMG® is a Hall Effect Thruster (HET) – an ion thruster in which electrons emitted by a cathode are trapped in a magnetic field and used to ionize a propellant. Due to unique innovations of the plasma chamber, the cathode and the fluidics system Exotrail has been able to reduce the size of this technology to fit small satellites.
The Nova portfolio of Orbital Astronautics
The Nova product line is Orbital Astronautics’ baseline propulsion system used in the company’s ORB-class satellite platforms. The thrusters have been designed to capitalise on usage of the “tuna-can” nanosatellite configuration which was developed with the aim of minimising impact on volume consumed within the platform. The systems use Carbon Nanotube (CNT) neutralizers and have no pressurized tanks or moving parts. The 3 products in the portfolio are:
The Nova – A 44 W thruster with an operating voltage of 7 – 36 V. The system has a total impulse of > 2,000 N s and a delta v of < 0.46 km/s assuming a 5 kg satellite.
The Kilonova – A 66 W thruster with an operating voltage of 12 – 36 V. The system has a total impulse of > 5,000 N s and a delta v of < 1.1 km/s assuming a 5 kg satellite.
The Supernova – A 66 W thruster with an operating voltage of 12 – 36 V. The system has a total impulse of 26,000 N s and a delta v of < 6.3 km/s assuming a 5 kg satellite.
The TILE 2 by Accion Systems
Accion Systems’ TILE 2 system is designed to provide small satellites with safe, scalable, ultra-low weight propulsion. The inert ionic liquid propellant has been used in order to meet future requirements for orbital maintenance and collision avoidance in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
The system has a wet mass of 0.45 kg and a total impulse of 35 Ns. The maximum thrust (axial) that can be produced is 0.05 mN at 4 W (standby power is 1.5 W) and minimum impulse bit is 50 µNs. Accion Systems manufacturers ion electrospray propulsion systems for spacecraft, enabling propulsion capabilities that can keep weight and design costs low, and are safe for rideshare.
The NPT30 is a standalone electric propulsion system for small satellites that can deliver high ∆V. ThrustMe challenged the fundamentals of electric propulsion and miniaturized the system by innovating in how propellant is stored, handled and accelerated. Combining ion thruster technologies with techniques derived from the semiconductor industry enabled high-performance miniaturization. The NPT30 is at TRL6. No performance degradation has been observed after hundreds of hours of operations and hundreds of ON/OFF cycles.
Based on helicon technology, the REGULUS system is a magnetically-enhanced RF plasma thruster designed for small platforms; characterized by low power and budget constraints. Due to its simplified architecture the thruster allows for cost reduction, making it a valuable solution for small platforms down to multi U. The system is throttleable and is easily scalable to match with the customer needs, while being composed only of a discharge chamber, an antenna and a magnetic field generator. It does not use electrodes, does not require neutralizers and grids, thus allowing cost reductions and long lifetimes. A proprietary (patented) helicon technology has been developed specifically for micro- and nanosatellites.
Morpheus’ FEEP technology has been specially developed for miniaturized applications using the low-melting metallic gallium propellant, as well as a chip-based neutralizer with the corresponding supply and control electronics. All of the system’s components are optimized to deliver the best propulsion performance for the least amount of space, mass and necessary electrical power, which are the most valuable commodities on board a nanosatellite. Due to the system’s plug-and-play nature the integration into a satellite platform is easy and highly customizable in order to fulfil the propulsion requirements of almost all low Earth orbit missions. The modular thruster system can be purchased as a single system, the nanoFEEP, or several units may be combined for more complex requirements in the multiFEEP.
ExoTerra Resource’s Halo is a miniaturized centerline-cathode Hall-effect thruster that uses magnetic fields to focus and accelerate a plasma to generate thrust. The Halo system operates on a flexible range of inert gases and storable propellants without combustion. The current version of Halo has demonstrated operation between 75 and 400 W with thrust ranging from 4 to 34 mN and Isp from 700 s to 1500 s. Designed for CubeSats, Halo fits within a 7.5 cm diameter by 4 cm long volume (excluding mission unique gas fittings), and weighs just 0.6kg.
Tethers Unlimited offer the HYDROS™ high-performance propulsion for small satellites. The thrusters use a hybrid electrical/chemical scheme to provide small spacecraft with both high thrust (≥ 1.5 N) and high Isp (≥ 310 s) propulsion. HYDROS propulsion systems enable secondary payloads to perform missions requiring orbit agility and large ∆Vs while launching with the ultimate ‘green’ propellant, water.
Bellatrix Aerospace has developed and patented Microwave Electro-thermal Thrusters (MET), an advanced type of electric propulsion for satellites. This is an efficient electric propulsion system and has a unique distinction of being able to efficiently work on several propellants such as Argon, Xenon, Nitrogen, Ammonia and Water Vapour. MET is an electrode-less (zero erosion), vortex-stabilized thruster where microwaves are used to heat the propellant and produce a high temperature exhaust for in-space propulsion.
Maxwell is a turn-key electric propulsion solution for next generation small satellites. It includes propellant (and control system) and a proprietary RF thruster. Maxwell is a 300-500 W class engine providing propulsion for small satellites (20-500kg) that was designed, built, tested in under 8 weeks. It provides a thrust output of 6-10 mN and has a specific impulse of 7,000-14,000 Ns.
Edit: 11 July 2019 – please note that previously in this section the CubeSat propulsion product called Rider, manufactured by Phase Four, was listed. This listing has been removed, as Rider has been obsoleted and replaced by Phase Four’s Maxwell thruster.
The Orbital Thruster is a miniaturised resistojet propulsion module that uses water-based propellant. The OT module is designed to be plug-and-play ready, as only power and connectivity wiring are required from the satellite. Although featuring a much reduced volume the OT is still estimated to provide enough propellant for 100 firings in the the nano-size variant making the product highly suitable for propulsion experiments and orbital adjustments prolonging satellite’s lifespan.
The thruster portfolio of Benchmark Space Systems
Benchmark Space Systems develops non-toxic (‘green’) propulsion systems designed for high thrust for the small satellite market. The company utilises proprietary, on-demand pressurization technology and non-toxic propellants with the aim of easing satellite operators’ launch manifests and expanding on-orbit capabilities. The three products available on satsearch are:
The HALCYON SmallSat Monoprop/Biprop Dual Mode Thruster – offered in monopropellant HTP or dual-mode HTP + Butane, designed to offer an innovative small satellite solution for high thrust or pulse-mode operational needs. This chemical propulsion system features a specific impulse of 140 to 320 s and a minimum impulse bit of 50 mN-s. Available in 100 mN to 22 N and in 1 to 12 thruster configurations.
The PEREGRINE SmallSat Bipropellant Thruster – featuring in-house components designed for additive manufacturing and non-toxic HTP + NHMF propellant. Features a specific impulse of 270 s and a minimum impulse bit of ≤ 0.5 mN-s. Available in 100 mN to 22 N and in 1 to 12 thruster configurations.
The STARLING CubeSat Warm Gas Thruster – an integrated warm gas thruster using non-toxic, powdered propellant. The system is designed to provide a standardized, bus agnostic propulsion system. Features a specific impulse of 70 – 140 s and a thrust level of 0.1 – 1 N.
Currently in development. SteamJet’s TunaCan propulsion system is designed to provide safe, compact and affordable water-based propulsion for smallsats and CubeSats. The product is being developed along with tungsten carbide manufacturing firm Total Carbide and a prototype of the system will be tested in space-simulated conditions in March 2020, with a patent also due to be filed.
Edit: 27 January 2020 – the TunaCan propulsion system by SteamJet Space in-development product listing was added.
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