New propulsion system using key mothball ingredient could propel satellites into space

Space travel is the last thing the smell of mothballs conjures up in people’s minds, but scientists say the key ingredient in the smelly pest control device can be used as cheap fuel to power satellites .

Researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra have designed a propellant fueled by naphthalene, the distinctive-smelling white powder found in mothballs and deodorant toilet cakes.

The propulsion system, named “Bogong”, will be tested in space in mid-2022 aboard satellites launched for the Australian space services company SkyKraft, as part of an aircraft tracking and communications program. .

ANU doctoral student Dimitrios Tsifakis said naphthalene is a cheap, non-corrosive alternative to hot-charged plasma to power thrusters on small satellites.

Heated to 70 degrees Celsius, solid naphthalene becomes a gas, which is then further heated as it passes through the thruster for rocket propulsion.

“Naphthalene is ideal because when heated it goes directly from solid to gas, without any liquid spilling into the propellant,” Tsifakis said.

“Everyone knows that old smell in Grandma’s wardrobe; now it is the latest novelty in space technology. “

Dimitrios Tsifakis says naphthalene is a new inexpensive system for propelling satellites. (Provided.)

Bogong thruster extends satellite life

Space agencies have spent years researching cheaper, more compact propulsion systems for satellites as an alternative to ion engines, which are powered by both expensive and scarce xenon gas.

The design of the Bogong uses more propellant than a plasma thruster, but is less complicated and therefore can carry more fuel.

The designers claim that the Bogong thruster could extend the life of the satellite by up to 20%, adding a year of life.

“Throwing mothballs into space could make the skies safer,” said Professor Christine Charles, head of the ANU’s space plasma, power and propulsion laboratory.

“If you put it in your closet it should be reasonably safe – it might not be very nice, but it’s readily available, it’s cheap, so we figured someone needed it. to try.

A woman wearing a black t-shirt stands next to a large silver machine
Christine Charles says ANU is fortunate to have a world-class vacuum chamber for testing. (Provided.)

Testing of the Bogong system was conducted inside the ANU’s space-based simulated vacuum chamber known as WOMBAT, where the thruster was heated under conditions mimicking those of space.

Professor Charles said there are few places in the world where such technology can be tested under space conditions.

“[Naphthalene] is something that is readily available to anyone who wants to try it out, and we thought the idea was so simple that it was something we had to do – and what’s good for us is that it’s all based in Canberra. “

The new Bogong thruster system isn’t the only candidate for alternative means of moving satellites at a lower cost in space – Paris-based company ThrustMe has also developed an iodine-powered propulsion system.

But project leader Professor Rod Boswell of Boswell Technologies said the Bogong thruster will be the first step in making aviation safer and cheaper.

“Designing a thruster in nine months from concept to launch is exceptional,” he said.

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