A satellite has used iodine propellant to change its orbit for the first time

One significant area of concern today is space junk, as more and more satellites are being put into orbit around the Earth. If satellites fail or become useless, they are often left orbiting the Earth, which poses a hazard to functional satellites. Researchers have created a new iodine thruster that could improve the mission lifetime for small CubeSats that orbit the Earth for various reasons, from monitoring crops to providing Internet access.

The challenge for small satellites is that they are more impacted by the upper atmosphere than larger satellites that carry thrusters and fuel. A company called ThrustMe has developed a new type of electric thruster that uses iodine as a propellant. Iodine is less expensive and requires simpler technology than traditional propellants.

Another significant benefit is that iodine is non-toxic and is solid at room temperature and pressure, making it easier and cheaper to handle on Earth. However, when iodine is heated, it turns into a gas without going through a liquid phase, making it ideal for a simple propulsion system. Since iodine is less dense than a traditional propellant, it occupies smaller volumes aboard the satellite. Space is at a premium on small satellites making that a critical feature.

ThrustMe launched its iodine thruster aboard a commercial research nanosatellite called SpaceTy Beihangkongshi-1 that launched in November 2020. The booster was test-fired earlier this month ahead of being used to change the orbit of the satellite. It's unclear when the next test using the thruster will be conducted at this time.

This type of thruster could be a game-changer for small satellites. The thruster could be used to keep small satellites in orbit longer, and it could also be used to push them into the atmosphere, where they burn up on reentry when they're no longer needed.