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MISTRAL: Miniaturized Innovative Space Thruster for operation with Rarefied Air in Low orbit



Prime contractor
Organisational Unit
26 April 2024

Duration: 18 months


In recent years, air-breathing electric propulsion has emerged as a potential enabling technology for long-duration space missions in Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO). In this project, we set to develop and characterize on ground the first CubeSat-scale air-breathing electric propulsion thruster. The device will be based on novel technological solutions specifically tailored to enable the miniaturization of the system and to improve its efficiency at low chamber pressures with air propellant. Several concepts have been proposed for air-breathing electric thrusters [1,2,3]; however, some limitations have consistently been identified, concerning: - the technology: ground tests have highlighted difficulties in the efficient ionization of the VLEO atmosphere, both because (i) molecular nitrogen and atomic oxygen are intrinsically more complex to ionize than typical EP propellants, and (ii) because of the low pressure expected in the atmosphere regions where full drag compensation is feasibile. - the implementation: most, if not all, concepts targeted platform sizes in the range 100-1000kg. Such large platforms would incur in significant cost and development time to perform the In-orbit experiment of a high risk/high reward technology such as air breathing propulsion. The proposed activity aims at surpassing these limitations through the development of a novel thruster technology and would represent the first concrete development effort towards the miniaturization of air-breathing systems. The employment of CubeSats for the subsequent In-orbit experiment of the technology would ensure a rapid and cost-effective avenue for the deployment of the system in the real operative environment, providing insight in the representativeness of ground tests and paving the way towards the wider adoption of air-breathing electric propulsion for long duration commercial and scientific missions in VLEO.

Contract number
OSIP Idea Id
Related OSIP Campaign
VLEO - New ideas for the nearest of outer space
Main application area
MISTRAL: Miniaturized Innovative Space Thruster for operation with Rarefied Air in Low orbit