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Conventional ion thrusters used for manoeuvring vehicles in space are roughly fridge-sized and work by accelerating gas ions to generate force in the opposite direction. But they waste a lot of gas and are limited in lifetime because the accelerated ions damage the engine.
Their nanothrusters, say the Michigan team, get around these problems. Each consists of a small chamber of fluid with electrodes inside and a vent at the top. Above that vent more electrodes generate a powerful electric field.
The fluid contains nanoparticles just tens of nanometres across that are ionised by electrodes in the chamber. Those charged ions are accelerated by the electric field and ejected from the vent, producing thrust.
These nanothrusters can be used in large numbers on flat panels with micro-scale fuel delivery channels. The panels would cover large areas of spacecraft and in the drag-free space environment give all vehicles fine and efficient control.
The inventors hope the flat-panel thrusters will reduce the cost of spacecraft thanks to their efficiency and light weight, cutting the cost of launching vehicles into space.