Tomorrow’s Satellites Could Run on Air

By Bill Andrews | March 7, 2018 3:16 pm

Air-breathing thrusters could power satellites of the future. (Credit: ESA)

Breathe in. Breathe out. Take a second and just let the air flow naturally through you.

When you’re having a tough time — you’re feeling an awful lot of resistance, maybe, or just running out of energy — remembering to breathe is important. It’s a mantra for a reason.

And now it’s not just good advice for people. The European Space Agency announced this week they’d developed a satellite thruster that breathes too, solving a host of problems and establishing a possible new era for upper-atmosphere aircraft.


While it’s easy to think that space starts where our atmosphere stops, it’s actually not a very firm boundary. There is an “official” edge, but the atmosphere itself just tapers off, getting thinner and thinner. Satellites that orbit in that gray area have to compensate for air resistance, requiring extra fuel and entailing shorter lifetimes than missions farther away.


The air-breathing ion thruster. (Credit: ESA)

The new thruster would bypass all that, “inhaling” the sparse particles of air up there and using them as propellant. Spacecraft equipped with the thruster could then fly very low orbits, around 124 miles up, for years on end.

Not Just Hot Air

The relatively simple machine — “no valves or complex parts” according to the ESA — basically sucks in the infrequent air particles and gases them up with heat and electricity. This lets the thruster shoot them out the back, providing a modest, but measurable, thrust (around 5 mph when all goes well).

An Italian lab built and tested an actual prototype, running within a vacuum chamber to simulate the thin atmosphere, and saw that it really did work.

New air-breathing propulsion systems may thus be the next big thing in spacecraft, opening a door into a new type of missions simply impossible with previous technology. And that isn’t limited to Earth, since Mars and other worlds have their own atmospheres that could power such machines.

Whoa. Let me catch my breath.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration
  • Uncle Al

    “modest, but measurable, thrust (around 5 mph when all goes well)” Thrust is not mph. Impulse-seconds measure fuel thrust quality.

  • OWilson

    To bad it cannot violate the FLOT, (no free lunch) otherwise AA trips could be a little cheaper?

  • Mike Richardson

    So, basically an ion-drive ramjet that works on the edge of space. Pretty cool.

  • Patrick `

    Do yall really believe this NONSENSE? Satellites are NOT REAL. Google/youtube “200 Proofs the Earth is Not a Spinning Ball”. All gps and cell phones work off of line of sight radio towers. Space travel is not possible. Where is the video of a model Saturn V working in a vaccum chamber? After all, Nasa owns the largest one on earth. Please wake up and stop perpetuating idiacy. May the force be with you.

    • Mike Richardson

      Please tell me this “idiacy” is satire. These days, it’s getting harder and harder to tell.

      • Patrick `

        Hey Mike, it is definately NOT satire. Hopefully you have sarted looking into some othe proofs for yourself. Again I highly recommend starting with the work of Eric Dubay. But here is what the independent reseach all points at: , fake moonlandings to hide the fact that space travel is not possible, thus satellites are not real, and all pics of a ball shaped-spinning earth and even Nasa itself are elaborate hoaxes to conceal the obvious fact that sea level is infact level and has no detectable curvature. Meaning we have been sold a nonsense fairltale for the last 500 years. Good luck and God Bless

        • Mike Richardson

          LOL! 😄 I don’t know what’s funnier — the earnest appeal of someone who clearly understands neither history nor basic science, or the rampant misspellings. Please have a parent proofread or approve your writing before you post in the future.

          • OWilson

            Mikey has finally found someone else who will actually talk to him (besides me!)

            Go Mikey!

          • Mike Richardson

            Based on the misspellings and conspiracy theories, I would have pegged him for one of your fans, except I know his “satellights is fake” would certainly trigger you. Bet he’s a “climate skeptic,” too. 😉

          • OWilson

            I’m glad the spell checking is in good hands, Mikey.

            But your grammar needs a little work!

            (And, of course, your frequent adolescent use of those cute little emoticon grinning images, is passe in adult conversation!)

          • Mike Richardson

            But I never misspell my emoticons (funny criticism coming from someone who uses smilies to excess). Maybe you could show me how that’s done. 😉

          • OWilson

            Until you figure out the difference between a colon and a semicolon, it would be a waste of time! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            My smilies are winking. A colon, of course, is that part of your body from which most of your ideas originate.

          • OWilson

            I’m happy to leave those judgements to our descerning readers! Lol!

          • Mike Richardson

            “Discerning,” Wilson. Discerning. 😏

          • OWilson

            Reality, Mikey!

            “But, but… Hillary got more votes!

            Numbers don’t lie, right?

            (According to your logic, and our relative DISQUS numbers, you lose!)


          • Mike Richardson

            Having a full time job, a family, and a life away from Discus Boards, I’m afraid I’ve had to limit my postings to Discover’s blogs, so all my upvotes have therefore been limited to the scientifically literate folks here. I just don’t have the time or inclination to spend my time on political blogs, seeking ideological affirmation. But it’s good to see you have your priorities in order. Keep “winning.” 😉

          • OWilson

            I never claim “winning”, That’s you remember?

            Bye Mikey!

          • Nona Smith

            Oh well said. Wing nuts always bring their baggage into the most non political areas. Their comments should be saved for the right’s horrendous media.

          • Mike Richardson

            Thank you. I’ve gotten pretty used to such partisan rhetoric from that one, but I appreciate having a discerning reader express that sentiment, too.

          • Mike Richardson

            My smilies are winking. I also know what a colon is . It’s the part of the body from which most of your ideas originate. 😉

          • Patrick `

            Hey Mike, unlike you I no longer live in my parents basement and spend most of my extra time with my hot girlfriend. Have fun with your nonexistent satellights and spelling corrections.

          • Mike Richardson

            That’s cute, champ, but I’ve been paying my own mortgage for years, and have been happily married even longer. Try not to get frightened when that Chinese fairytale re-enters Earth’s atmosphere in the next month or so.

          • nona

            Love your response. The person is obviously a little touched and probably wearing a tin foil hat! I


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar