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Coupling Test of an Air-breathing Ion Thruster and Airbreathing cathode



Prime contractor
Organisational Unit
13 May 2024

Duration: 18 months


The goal of this project is to be the first to couple an air-breathing thruster to an air-breathing cathode: a critical step towards the worlds first ABEP. Two critical components of any ABEP system are the ion engine, and the accompanying neutralizing cathode, both of which must operate on the gases harvested by the air-collector. We have currently developed a proof of concept of a novel RF (Radio Frequency) cathode, which has demonstrated the ability to operate on atmospheric propellants. The prototype of our gridded ion engine has also demonstrated stable performance on atmospheric propellants when coupled to a xenon-breathing cathode.

In this activity we will perform the world’s first coupling test of a thruster and cathode where both are operating purely on oxygen and nitrogen. The first demonstration of an entire propulsion system including thruster and cathode operating on atmospheric propellants would be a ground-breaking achievement, and a critical step towards flying an ABEP system: the core technology which will unlock sustained VLEO for commercial and scientific use.

NewOrbit, a UK startup aiming to unlock long-term and reliable satellite operations in VLEO below 250km, by developing the Air-Breathing Electric Propulsion (ABEP) system able to fully compensate atmospheric drag with thrust. Such an ABEP system could cause disruption to the market, opening sustained VLEO operation up to scientific exploration and commercial exploitation.

Contract number
OSIP Idea Id
Related OSIP Campaign
VLEO - New ideas for the nearest of outer space
Main application area
Coupling Test of an Air-breathing Ion Thruster and Airbreathing cathode