Satellites in Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) have the potential to outpace the fastest ground-based communication networks and compete with the performance of aerial photography. Low-flying satellites undergo orbital decay caused by atmospheric drag, which inevitably precipitates them towards destruction in the atmosphere within days, if not countered. The use of standard electric propulsion systems to compensate this drag is seriously limited by the fuel capacity and cost of satellites.
The von Karman Institute (VKI) aims to demonstrate the efficiency and functionality of an Atmospheric-Breathing Electric Propulsion (ABEP) system providing sufficient net thrust to VLEO platforms. A proof of concept for an intake component of the ABEP system is under investigation. It should ingest enough particles of the residual atmosphere used as a propellant feeding an electric thruster.
The overall air-breathing satellite architecture is limited by environmental and technical constraints. The geometry of the satellite must be optimized to reduce drag, while ensuring maximum collection of atmospheric propellant and sufficient electrical energy. The VKI is designing such a platform by combining evolutionary algorithm methods and rarefied flow simulations.
At the same time, the VKI is building a test-bench to validate the ABEP collection performance on-ground. The facility will provide a collision less VLEO-like environment and use a novel particle flow generator to simulate thermosphere conditions. This new facility paves the way for complementary studies on gas-surface interactions for space platforms.