French startup demonstrates iodine propulsion in potential boost for space debris mitigation efforts

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French startup ThrustMe has performed the first on-orbit tests of an innovative iodine-fueled electric propulsion system, proving its ability to change a CubeSat’s orbit. By Benjamin ChessEric Sigler.

ThrustMe’s NPT30-I2-1U, the first iodine electric propulsion system sent into space, is aboard the Beihangkongshi-1, a 12U CubeSat developed by Chinese commercial satellite maker Spacety.

After weeks of commissioning the propulsion system was tested during two 90-minute burns in late December and early January. The burns resulted in a total altitude change of 700 meters according to a ThrustMe press release. The firms says the results prove iodine to be a viable propellant for electric propulsion systems and mark a step towards commercialization of the system.

Notably the system could have an impact on space sustainability efforts. It allows a small satellite to lower its altitude, reducing its time in orbit, seeing the satellite burn up on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere and helping reduce space debris in lower Earth orbit.

The European Space Agency estimates that there are 34,000 debris objects greater than 10 centimeters in size and 900,000 pieces from between 1 to 10 centimeters in orbit as of January 2021. Traveling at several kilometers per second, even the smallest fragments can threaten spacecraft, including the International Space Station. Exciting!

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