First iodine-propelled satellite successfully performed propulsive operations

The French Startup ThrustMe and the Chinese spacecraft manufacturer SpaceTy have successfully launched the first-ever CubeSat 6U with iodine propulsion earlier this month. And only after the 15 days of the launch, they announced that the first propulsive operations had been conducted. Just after ten days in orbit, SpaceTy managed to complete the in-orbit commissioning of the satellite.

This device opens the way to more manageable micro-satellites, at low cost. The 6U satellite was equipped with TrustMe’s I2T5 non-pressurized cold gas thruster. This thruster is a one-of-its-kind propulsion system powered by iodine and xenon. An electric heating system sublimates the iodine that is projected out of a nozzle, thus generating the thrust that allows the satellite to maneuver.

With this thruster, tiny satellites (known as CubeSats) will finally be able to do propulsive operations. And bigger satellites will gain considerably in both the complexity and cost of the propulsion system. The propulsion system will increase the life of the SpaceTy CubeSats by performing in-orbit operations and space debris avoidance. For the moment, the device does not allow orbit changes.

The I2T5 mounted onto TY15 satellite
The I2T5 mounted onto TY15 satellite

Iodine has remarkable advantages compared to pressurized gases, but it also has new technical and quite difficult challenges. It is not straight forward – you cannot just replace the pressurized gas with iodine and think that it will work. We had to think outside the box, and we combined many fields of physics, chemistry, and engineering to succeed”, says Dmytro Rafalskyi, CTO of ThrustMe.

With this launch, ThrustMe is gaining momentum with its competitors in the iodine propulsion segment, including Busek, which is working with NASA on the Lunar IceCube project, a CubeSat that is expected to join the lunar orbit in 2021.

The I2T5 is a cold gas propulsion system that we designed for CubeSats. However, it is also a subsystem for our ion electric propulsion product. So this technology demonstration we are doing together with SpaceTy is a big step for us – two birds with one stone”, says Ane Aanesland, CEO of ThrustMe.

The first firing of the I2T5 was performed 18th of November 2019 and had a duration of a few 10s of minutes. All subsystems reported correct operations, and thus the commissioning of the thruster was successful. During the next firings, the thruster will perform exact orbital maneuvers, the team reports.