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Plasma thruster could propel small satellites into deep space for cheap

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A few years from now, we might be able to send small satellites into deep space for cheap using a new propulsion system being developed by University of Michigan engineers -- assuming they raise enough money via Kickstarter. Called CAT (CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster), it's designed to propel 10 x 10 x 10 centimeter CubeSat blocks far beyond the planet's orbit using only solar energy for fuel. Thus far, similar satellites can only orbit the Earth after going along for a ride on current rockets that are larger and more expensive. In the future, CATs could head to the asteroid belt, or even as far as Saturn and Jupiter to investigate water on their moons. The $200,000 its engineers aim to raise (in exchange for your name etched on the golden layer of a spacecraft panel) will go towards the CAT engine's development and testing. The team could send an experimental thruster to space as soon as 2014 with help from NASA-Ames and Google, with a spacecraft launch targeted for 2015.



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