H2020 AETHER - Air-breathing Electric THrustER

Get electric propulsion to get to space

Electric propulsion (EP) is considered by all space actors as a revolutionary technology for the new generation of commercial and scientific satellites. In Europe, all stakeholders including the European Space Agency (ESA) have been working to develop and increase the competitiveness of the European EP technology for different types of markets. The EU-funded AETHER project will advance EP thruster design towards a more flight representative stage. It will demonstrate sufficient and reliable net thrust production for the target applications. The ultimate goal of the project is to advance the EP portfolio of Europe with the world’s first EP air-breathing engine.



The limiting factor for the duration of space endeavours is often related to the total mass of propellant available on board. If a new propulsion device was capable of using the upper layers of the atmosphere as propellant, this would enable a vast spectrum of new planetary mission scenarios.

In recent years SITAEL has produced the world’s first example of such a device, the “RAM-EP” engine. This innovative electric propulsion (EP) thruster was successfully tested in an environment representative of VLEO, achieving TRL4.

The AETHER project will advance the thruster design towards a more flight representative stage, experimentally demonstrating sufficient and reliable net thrust production for the target applications. This will be achieved through the design optimization of the various thruster components, careful selection of materials and proper diagnostics tools, together with system-level design considerations.

The project aims to improve the maturity of technologies associated with the main RAM-EP functions and to define a configuration of the RAM-EP system that integrates in a synergic way the different technologies. The von Karman Institute is responsible for the development of the intake/compression stage that gathers the scarce molecules from the atmosphere and delivers them to the electric thruster. The von Karman Institute will also support the aerodynamic design of the spacecraft plateform and participate in the ground testing activity to validate the design of the RAM-EP thruster and evaluate its performance.

Successful completion of the AETHER project will advance the electric propulsion portfolio of Europe with the world-first EP air-breathing engine, potentially shifting the paradigm of VLEO, LEO and planetary missions.




Six Member States are involved in Aether: Italy, Belgium, United Kingdom, Greece, Germany, Austria.
The seven members of the Consortium are a well balanced mix of entities (one research institution, one large enterprise, four SMEs and one non-profit organisation), which has been conceived to maximise knowledge and expertise necessary for the successful achievement of all the project’s goals.

The coordinator of the project is SITAEL and the 6 partners are: the von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics (Belgium), University of Surrey ( United Kingdom), Data Evaluation and Diagnostics Algorithmas of systems EPE ( Greece), TransMIT Gesellschaft fuer Technologietransfer mbH (Germany), RHP TECHNOLOGY GMBH (Austria), Astos Solutions GmbH (Germany).