In 2006, Mason Peck at Cornell University in Ithaca dreamt up with an entirely new way to control satellites orbiting planets that have a magnetic field. The idea is based on the Lorentz force: that a charged particle moving through a magnetic field experiences a force perpendicular to both its velocity and the field.
So the plan is to somehow ensure that the spacecraft becomes electrically charged as it moves through the planetary magnetic field which should then generate a force that can alter the orbit or orientation of the vehicle. The big advantage of so-called Lorentz actuated orbit control is that it requires no propellant. That’s a big deal since the amount of fuel a spacecraft can carry is the main factor that determines its lifespan. Propellant-free propulsion could significantly increase their operaitng lives.
Today, Peck along with William Gorman and James Brownridge at the State University of New York at Binghamton present the results of the first experimental trials of the idea. The work was funded by NASA but it has to be said: it doesn’t look entirely promising.
The team tested the ability of various objects to hold a charge in a vacuum while being bombarded with plasma, as would be the case in orbit. To generate the charge on the test object, they attached it to a sample of radioactive Americium-24, an alpha-particle emitter, and applied a voltage. The electric field carries away the positively charged alpha particles leaving the object highly charged.
I’ll let the team take up the tale:
“Microscopic arcing was observed at voltages as low as -300 V. This arcing caused solder to explode off of the object.“
Obviously, a proplusion system that explodes while it is in operation needs some more work.
The early pioneers of experimental propulsion systems such as Robert Goddard and Werner von Braun all had to cope with catastrophic failures, so Peck, Gorman and Brownridge are in good company. And as long as nobody gets hurt, a decent explosion livens up any experiment.
So stick with it fellas. Something tells me that if NASA funds the future development of this system, we’re going to be in for some fun.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0805.3332: Experimental Study of a Lorentz Actuated Orbit