Investigating water-based propulsion of microsatellites

The University of Luxembourg together with Bradford Deep Space Industry have recently started a partnership collaboration to build an efficient and reliable numerical model for water-based propulsion of microsatellites.

Sustainability in space

Back in the spotlight, the space market is in a great expansion and stretching the limits every day. New space companies are constantly innovating and adapting their solutions to face the new challenges coming up along the space conquest. Efficient and low-cost space propulsion continues to be the key technology that will allow development of a self-sustainable economy in space.

In response to those challenges, space companies are growing interest in electrical propulsion systems using water as propellant. Indeed, the use of water as propellant allows deep space satellites to refuel during their trip by mining water which is an abundant resource in space. In this new space race, water-based propulsion enables safe, affordable, simple and sustainable operation of microsatellites.

Understanding the physics behind

However, to build an efficient and reliable water-based propulsion system, it is necessary to understand the physics occurring inside that system. Having more efficient propulsion systems is important to reduce their consumption of power, mass, and volume which are sensible limiting factors on spacecrafts. Inside an electric propulsion system, the liquid propellant passes through a heating chamber where it is vaporised and super-heated and gets finally expelled to create movement. So, by understanding the physics happening to the water propellant in the specific conditions of the heating chamber, one can develop an accurate numerical model of a water rocket propulsion system.

Then, having a numerical model gives to space engineers an effective way to develop and test new designs for the propulsion system with much less efforts than today. Thus, being able to predict the phenomena occurring during propulsion operations highly simplifies the design optimisation with the final goal to increase the performance of the propulsion systems which ultimately leads to an increase of the payload capacity of micro-satellites.

Win-win partnership

The aim of this research project is to numerically investigate, model and understand the physics of water vaporisation and heat transfer processes taking place in the heating chamber of a resistojet propulsion system. The project combines the technical needs for suitable design tools for the industrial partner with the scientific expertise of the University of Luxembourg in model development and numerical calculation capabilities.

-This is the first collaboration between Bradford Space and a Luxembourgish public research institution. We are very proud to be the first one and very excited to work on this innovative project. PhD Guillem Khairy has recently joined our team in applied thermodynamics bringing high expertise in spacecraft design, propulsion systems and numerical methods-, comments Prof. Stephan Leyer , Head of the Department of Engineering and project leader at the Faculty of Science, Technology and Medicine of the University of Luxembourg.

-For Bradford Space, establishing collaboration with the University of Luxembourg provides a unique possibility to conduct research on a topic which is essential for the development of future green non-toxic space propulsion systems for the nano and microsatellite market, a highly competitive international market-, explains Edder Rabadan Santana , project leader at Bradford Space.

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