From Water Power To EmDrive, The Quest To Put Tiny Satellites Into Orbit

The spacefaring nations of the world are competing with private companies to build an economy in orbit, colonize the moon, and exploit resources from passing asteroids, but to reach other planets something more is needed.

For mankind to really push out into space and become a multi-planet species, we’ll need to develop spaceships with new propulsion systems capable of withstanding intense forms of radiation, former NASA head Sean O’Keefe told Sputnik.

“The catch with in-space propulsion is: How do you reduce the mass required to fuel the means to propel you in space without requiring the additional weight and mass?”

(Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)

The problem with traveling beyond the moon is twofold: the weight of the fuel needed to propel the spacecraft and the shielding humans require to survive the intense radiation found in deep space, O’Keefe told Sputnik

“[Spacecraft] will also have to have a lot more protection for humans from radiation.”

That’s one reason NASA is looking to university students, amateur rocketeers, and DIYers to build very small spaceships that it can test in outer space. The space agency is betting that cubesats, cereal box-sized satellites often built with off-the-shelf parts, are their best bet to develop the technology needed for interstellar travel.

To encourage space entrepreneurs, they’ve launched the Cube Quest competition, a $5.5 million challenge that offers the opportunity to build and test small satellites in orbit and beyond the moon.

A Cornell University student team, dubbed the Cislunar Explorers, is building a cubesat that runs entirely on water.

After launch, the tiny craft is designed to fly across space using only water as propellant; it could refuel with ice found on asteroids, making resupply from Earth unnecessary, Cornell aerospace engineer Mason Peck, told

“If we could refuel spacecraft while they’re already in space, that means that we could go farther, probably faster, probably accomplish a lot more, and we wouldn’t rely on Earth for supplies.”

The Cornell team aren’t the only ones planning to use water to power future spacecraft. The asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries is building the world’s first interplanetary prospecting spacecraft and plans to utilize resources found in passing asteroids in the new cislunar economy that is developing in low-Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, another DIYer is planning to use a somewhat more controversial form of propulsion to power his cubesat. German engineer Paul Kocyla is crowdfunding an EmDrive powered cubesat that he hopes will prove the “impossible warp drive” mechanism actually works, according to his GoFundMe page.

“A thruster like this is of the same importance like the steam engine or internal combustion engine was many years ago…. If it works, it will bring another StarTrek technology into real life.”


EmDrive technology is highly controversial because it appears to break the laws of physics. The engine appears to provide thrust without using propellant or expelling exhaust, but mainstream scientists have largely derided EmDrive experiments saying any proof of thrust is probably due to a mistake.

Tiny cubesat spacecraft are given very specific missions. (Photo by NASA/Getty Images)
(Photo by NASA/Getty Images)

That’s one reason Kocyla wants to send his EmDrive-powered cubesat into orbit. If it works, it proves the technology and if it fails then there will finally be an end to the argument.

He’s competing with Guido Fetta, CEO of Cannae Inc, who also plans to launch an EmDrive-powered cubesat into orbit and leave it there for six months as proof the controversial technology actually works.

NASA has already set to launch 13 other cubesats aboard the first test of the Space Launch System with an Orion crew capsule in 2018, including a Lunar Flashlight designed to illuminate the bottoms of lunar craters. There will also be a solar powered NEA Scout aboard, which will use a lunar sail to travel out to near-Earth asteroid 1991 1VG to demonstrate a low-cost method of exploring space.

What do you think of NASA’s use of small cubesat spacecraft to test new technologies?

[Featured Image by Scott Kelly/NASA via AP]