First tests in space of water ion engines

Sony’s Star Sphere 1 satellite is equipped with an ion engine and imaging camera
(photo: CC0 Public Domain)

The Japanese company Pale Blue conducted the world’s first space test of ion engines powered by water vapor. Placed in a Sony nanosatellite, the engines were launched in about two minutes. Based on the data obtained, the engineers concluded that the experiment was successful.

The propulsion system was tested on March 3 on Sony’s first satellite launched into space as part of the Star Sphere project, which aims to give more people access to high-quality images of Earth and other space objects.

The Star Sphere 1 satellite, also known as EYE, was launched into orbit by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The satellite, located at a height of 500-600 km from the Earth, is equipped with a camera to take pictures, Gizmodo reported.

A successful test of the propulsion system will allow Pale Blue to move forward with the project, delivering the satellite to its target orbit, where the spacecraft should begin operating later this year.

“Pale Blue has developed and tested its water-based propulsion. We have taken a huge step forward on the way to launching other instruments from the Star Sphere project into orbit,” the company commented.

The main goal of the developers of the water ion engine is to create an alternative technology that allows satellites to remain in Earth orbit. Water plays the role of ecological fuel, which is also beneficial from an economic point of view. Pale Blue’s propulsion system simply splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, burning them as fuel.

However, using water as fuel has its limitations in terms of the size and weight of the spacecraft that can be powered by such engines. Water ion engines are thought to be ideal for use in small satellites.

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