Solid-state microfrabricated devices are in development to replace contemporary heavy mechanical components for use in spacecraft propellant management.
The booming market of smaller, cheaper, and lighter CubeSats has created the need for equally small propulsion systems. Electric propulsion is a very efficient option for most large spacecraft, but small spacecraft typically lack the power needed to operate them. MIT’s Space Propulsion Lab has developed the ion Electrospray Propulsion System to address this operational regime to make CubeSats viable platforms for numerous missions that traditional chemical propulsion cannot enable. To accompany these lightweight and low-power propulsion systems, propellant control must also be low mass and require minimal power. Recent developments in microfabrication techniques have shown that electrostatic fields can effectively initiate the flow of propellant via wicking materials and capillary tubes with no need for heavy mechanical valves and pressure vessels that require more power. These devices are being built for testing in a zero-gravity environment to conclusively show their operational capabilities for future spacecraft.