Student-led teams aren't the only ones to recently test novel electric propulsion technologies. Back in November, a company called Exotrail successfully tested a completely new type of electric propulsion system in space – a small Hall-effect engine.
Hall effect engines themselves have been around for a while. However, their practical applicability was limited mainly due to their size. Usually about the size of a refrigerator and using kilowatts of power, they are impractical for small satellites.
UT video describing ion engines, one of which is the Hall Effect thruster.
This is where the new Exotrail system shines. It's about the size of a 2 liter bottle of soda (or pop if you're from this part of the world) and only uses around 50 watts of power. This makes the propulsion system ideal for satellites from 10 to 250 kg.
The demonstration system started on November 7th on board a PSLV rocket and completed its first flight maneuvers with the Hall-effect engine in December. After these tests are successfully completed, the team plans further tests to prove how useful these thrusters can be for collision avoidance, orbit maintenance, and deliberate desorbing.
Exotrail video describing the mission statement and some details of the system they developed.
Photo credit: Exotrail Youtube Channel
But no new space technology is complete without software, and the Exotrail Hall Effect thrusters are no exception. ExoOPS, the operating software required to operate the engine, has the additional advantage that satellite constellations can be controlled. This operation is similar to the coordinated drone flights seen in modern lighting shows.
Satellite with Exotrail technology is being tested.
With a combination of significantly improved small power and novel control software, the platform could be used in many new CubeSat platforms, and in fact many parties have already expressed an interest in it. If all goes well, there is a definite possibility of seeing electrically powered propellants shoot out of thousands of tiny satellites.
Exotrail: Exotrail paves the way for new space mobility with its first successful demonstration mission in orbit
SpaceNews: Exotrail Demonstrates Miniature Hall Effect Engine In Orbit
SateNews: Space Mobility Success in Orbit by Exotrail
Lead Image Credit: NanoAvionics satellite with Exotrail technology launched in November. Photo credit: NanoAvionics / ISRO