Science, Science and Tech

Smartphone sized satellites developed

Miniaturised technology is nothing new. The average person carries a camera, a phone, a small computer, a games console, and a personal organiser with them at all times, often in the same appliance. Satellites the size of a smartphone have already been developed, and contain many similar functions, such as cameras, radio transmitters, and GPS positioning systems, though they probably don’t play Angry Birds.


With so many of the components already commonplace, designing these satellites was easy. And due to their negligible weight, they can hitchhike their way into our atmosphere on the launch of larger spacefaring rockets. But due to this inexact delivery method, there was one very important piece of equipment they were missing; a way to steer themselves. Now, a collaboration of scientists from Michigan and Sydney Universities have developed micro rocket engines using a substance called ferrofluid.

The preliminary micro rocket design used a hollow tube around a millimetre long, thinner than a human hair, which sprays an ionic liquid to produce thrust. An area on the miniature satellites the size of a postage stamp would provide sufficient thrust to manoeuvre them into their orbitals. The problem is that these structures are fragile, easily destroyed, and are very hard to manufacture.
The team instead started experimenting with ferrofluids, which are tiny magnetic particles suspended in a solvent which alters physical volume according to magnetic fields. By then applying an electrical current to the ferrofluid, the shape can be manipulated into micro rocket designs which then start emitting ions of their own accord.

As long as the magnet remains in place beneath the engines, they retain their shape and are nearly immune to damage (as the developers found out when they accidently applied overvoltage to the nanoneedles) and within minutes the ferrofluid had reformed. While not quite at the level of the terminator, these reforming liquid metal engines could be the next step of space propulsion.


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August 2022
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