Carrying propellant, however, brings its own set of problems. Not only is the chemical highly flammable, but it also takes up a lot of space, which is problematic when designing a small spacecraft.
In a bid to address some of these problems, researchers at the University of Illinois (U of I) and the Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) developed a new method of propulsion for small spacecraft that uses nanoparticles as its propellant.
Nanoparticles instead of rocket fuel
The concept of using nanoparticles as a form of propellant isn't a novel one. A previous study published in 2003 by the French-German Research Institute of Saint Louis in the journal Nano Letters demonstrated the use of ammonium perchlorate nanoparticles as a form of solid rocket fuel.
What makes the joint U of I and Missouri S&T study different is the fact that the nanoparticle propellant isn't burned like a traditional solid-fueled rocket. Instead, electromagnetic energy is used to push the nanoparticles in a specific direction.
The propellant that the team used is made of neutral nanoparticles derived from glass or other materials that insulate rather than conduct electric charges. (Related: Breakthrough: Researchers use nanoparticles to separate oil from water.)