About this project
- December 20: A gift for backers in time for Christmas
- December 17: A special tour of our lab
- December 15: Testing equipment - CAT motion table
- December 13: Group donations - Send your class or team to space
- December 10: All we want for Christmas is a stretch goal or two
- December 8: Add-on rewards - Add an extra t-shirt or engraving
- December 6: The world's strongest permanent magnet is on CAT
- December 5: Free giveaways - Get free CAT gear
- December 3: Made it to $50,000 in 48 hours, thank you!
As Seen In
Links: The Verge, NewScientist, The Michigan Daily, TEDxUofM, HOBOCTN@mail.ru, Tasnim News, rt(Z), Product Design & Development, White House OSTP, University of Michigan Zell Lurie Institute, Christian Science Monitor, SpaceRef, NASA Watch
Siri, how do I get to Mars?
The Big Idea: Inexpensive CubeSat Propulsion
Our vision is to enable extremely low-cost access to deep space. We are developing the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster (CAT), a new rocket propulsion system powered by the Sun and propelled by water, which will push small spacecraft like CubeSats around and far beyond the Earth. New propulsion technologies can cost billions of dollars and take a decade to build and launch. CAT will be one of least expensive and most rapidly developed deep-space-capable systems ever built.
Stretch Goals: Why They Matter
Reaching stretch goals brings us years closer to sustainable, safe and affordable space travel. The CAT engine also has important applications with the potential to improve life here on Earth (see 'Practical Application' below)
Why CAT Matters: The Future of Space Exploration
Space exploration has traditionally been expensive, many spacecraft launched today are the size of a truck and can cost over $1 billion dollars. CAT will be tested on a CubeSat, a small satellite the size of a loaf of bread. CubeSats cost 1,000 to 10,000 times less to develop and launch than conventional satellites. As scientific and commercial space technologies get exponentially smaller, it becomes easier (and less expensive) to place small but powerful sensors on a CubeSat platform. The CAT engine can propel this miniaturized equipment to exciting new locations previously unreachable at such a low price.
Practical Application: From Better Weather Prediction To Asteroid Rendezvous
Flight-demonstrated CAT engine technology will enable a wide variety of exciting scientific and commercial opportunities. By contributing to the CAT campaign, you can help future spacecraft make amazing discoveries about extraterrestrial bodies and further our understanding of the near-Earth environment, the Solar System, and beyond. Who knows, maybe we’ll even be able to find life on those beckoning watery moons of Jupiter or Saturn! Future low-cost missions (and perhaps Kickstarter campaigns) we envision with CAT technology:
- High-Tech Meteorology and Mapping: Camera and sensor-equipped satellites that look at the Earth provide a powerful tool for analyzing weather patterns. Low cost arrays of such satellites could provide up-to-the-minute highly accurate and localized data on temperature and cloud cover.
- Search for Life: Simple diagnostic equipment could be flown on a CubeSat through the water plumes that are ejected into space from Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, or put into orbit around Europa, a moon of Jupiter that is thought to contain more water than all of Earth’s oceans and may contain life.
- Inexpensive Global Communication: Ejected from a single rocket launch vehicle, a fleet of CubeSats with CAT engines could be quickly deployed into globe-covering orbits around the Earth for cheap global internet access, more current satellite photos, better global weather observations, or the first interplanetary internet.
- Space-Weather Measurements: An array of CubeSats flying in formation can easily gather spatially resolved data in Earth's magnetosphere to learn more about solar flares and the aurora, making space weather as predictable as Earth weather. Fleets of spacecraft can also make coordinated optical observations for specific ground or celestial items of interest.
- Asteroid Inspection: A CAT-propelled CubeSat could be sent to the asteroid belt with scanning equipment and a radio beacon payload to identify and mark an asteroid of interest for later retrieval, mining, or human exploration.
This is just the beginning of how these CAT-propelled CubeSats could be used to go to destinations that have never been visited, but we need your help to get things off the ground – literally.
Social: Spread The Word, You’re Going To Space
Click to go to www.GoBluePlasma.com for links to our Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages. Also find links to our patents and technical information. Use #GoBluePlasma, #space and #CATengine during the campaign to join in the conversation. After the campaign, we'll continue to provide updates so you can follow along with the progress of YOUR space mission.
Funding: Why Kickstarter and Where Does My Money Go?
Summary - Funding from Kickstarter will allow us to test CAT in space.
Traditional university research funding starts with seed data, a small seed grant, a government grant and a large number of gates to go through over many years. We’d like to leverage Kickstarter funds to compress that timeline and go from initial seed data to flight in about 18 months, a much faster time scale than is possible with traditional grants. We love the idea of “Citizen Explorers” helping fund this project and are excited to have our backers be part of the journey.
While we have obtained some external funding, this mission may never happen without your help. Research funding is notoriously slow and filled with red tape. Technology demonstration missions can take over ten years to go from concept to launch. We want to do more faster, getting CAT from the drawing board to space in record time. With your help, we will be assembling everything into one compact thruster unit and testing integrated components in the lab, then in Earth orbit. If we reach stretch goals, we could be testing CAT in interplanetary space at a destination of your choice!Our base funding goal of $50,000 is enough to add specialized equipment to the satellite to observe the plasma plume ejected by the CAT engine. Integrating a high-resolution camera and associated subsystems is critical to validate our theories on plasma flow along a magnetic nozzle and complete our test matrix when CAT is on-orbit. Because this is an entirely new type of engine, we need a camera in order to directly observe how the super heated plasma follows the magnetic nozzle and then detaches to create thrust. Without a camera we can’t know precisely when the plasma is being created. Basically, we need to see the engine actually creating plasma to verify our assumptions. On Earth it’s easy for us to observe the plasma during testing, but in space it’s much more difficult.
The CAT engine is being developed at the University of Michigan’s Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory (PEPL), the ultimate playground for rocket scientists. Here, we will test the thruster in a vacuum and thermal environment as close to space as we can achieve on the ground.
Technical Details: Water As Fuel and The Science Behind CAT
We live in a world of 20-30 mpg of fossil fuels. “Powered by the Sun and propelled by water” sounds like science fiction right? With CAT technology, solar-powered spacecraft can someday average over 1 billion miles per gallon using only water for fuel.
To date, only a few satellites have explored our vast Solar System. Once the CAT engine is proven, CubeSats will finally have the potential to reach deep space, something that has never been achieved. Currently, CubeSats piggyback to orbit on larger rockets. Once in space, they drift around Earth, trapped in their original orbit until they eventually de-orbit and burn up in the atmosphere. The CAT engine will extend the life of these CubeSats around Earth and will finally allow CubeSats to reach destinations far beyond Earth orbit.
CAT is currently at NASA Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 3, meaning we are in the midst of performing experiments to probe its feasibility, thanks to private sponsorship. We need your help to get all the way to TRL 8: A full-fledged demonstration of CAT’s capabilities in space. For the first test we will use xenon, a heavy, inert gas which is the industry standard for electric propulsion, to benchmark its performance. If we reach our stretch goals we’ll be able to develop the water propellant storage system that will make CAT a fully sustainable thruster.
Plasma thrusters have been used on satellites for decades, but they have been bulky devices weighing up to 10 kg (20 lbs), suitable only for large satellites such as Deep Space 1 and Dawn. The CAT design scales down previously demonstrated technology to make it practical for CubeSats, with a total weight of less than 0.5 kg (1 lb). Bam, miniaturization! The CubeSat for the CAT engine will be based off of existing and proven LEO and deep space flight technologies from the RAX-2 and INSPIRE CubeSats.
Here’s a detailed look at the principles behind the CAT engine: Just like a normal rocket that produces thrust from the burning and expansion of hot gases, CAT produces thrust from the expansion of a super-heated 350,000 °C plasma stream. Plasma is an ionized gas that can be accelerated to produce thrust (F=ma). The force generated by this thruster will be very low (micro-newtons) but very efficient. The engine will be turned on for long durations, accelerating the spacecraft to much higher velocities than a typical chemical rocket. Our first test will use xenon, a safe, non-toxic gas typically used in large-scale plasma thrusters. With support from you, we can begin work on our long-term goal of designing a water-based propellant system to make the first truly sustainable plasma propulsion device for CubeSats.
Still thirsty for more technical info? Check out our homepage (www.GoBluePlasma.com) and bask in the glory of the rocket science behind CAT.
Rewards: An Interplanetary Message in a Bottle
We were inspired by the famous Voyager spacecraft, traveling beyond the reach of our solar system. When Voyager was launched in 1977, scientists attached a Gold Record to it, with the following message:
In return for your support, we’ll provide you with a unique opportunity to get exclusive rewards. At many pledge levels, your message (initials, tweets, love notes, messages to ET, original song lyrics, location of the buried treasure) will be laser etched into a gold layer on the exterior spacecraft panels, exposed directly to the vacuum of space as homage to the Voyager Gold Record.
Your messages will be cast away from the Earth as a permanent record in space, the ultimate interplanetary “message in a bottle.” If we reach our stretch goals, we estimate that your name or message could last for millions of years, drifting among the stars. We will even return pictures and data from space directly to our backers.
Other rewards include stickers and mission patches, exclusive pictures, T-shirts, moon-mission inspired playing cards, limited edition plaques and fashion accessories, and even live classes for students, offering young minds a new perspective on the universe.
The MISSION CONTROL pledge level provides a personal tour and (if the stars align) a chance to push some buttons and fire a real rocket engine here on Earth.
MOONSHOT rewards include an opportunity to launch an MXL Project Strato high-altitude balloon carrying a personal item of your choice to near space (over 90,000 feet) and go on the exciting chase with fellow space enthusiast Dhani Jones.
Backers who pledge for GO BUTTON and PURE AND SIMPLE will get a limited edition engineering model of the first CAT spacecraft. The lucky backer who pledges for GO BUTTON will have the chance to fire the CAT engine in space, initiating mission maneuvers.
Schedule: Countdown To LaunchWe are working to complete and vacuum-test a flight-qualified satellite with an integrated CAT. With Kickstarter funding, the spacecraft will be launched into Low Earth Orbit for CAT testing and verification. Testing will validate the CAT engine's performance and physics models developed by our team. Once these tests are completed, we will perform a series of spiral-out flight maneuvers to climb to higher and higher altitudes. If we make our stretch goals, we will continue our spiral trajectory in order to escape the Earth and reach the Moon, Mars or even an asteroid for research purposes.
Since this summer, we have achieved some exciting milestones in CAT development:
- Flight worthy magnet design
- Improved antenna
- First plasma
- Secured a space launch for a CAT demo
- Secured private funding to develop most of the CAT subsystems
In the coming weeks we will be performing initial plasma tests with the permanent magnets installed. Once the prototype is functioning, we will package it into the CubeSat shell by the end of 2013. Rigorous testing in the first quarter of 2014 will evaluate the performance of the thruster and provide insight as we design and build a flight model. We have secured a launch in late 2014 and are on track to meet that goal, but we can’t do it without your help!
After launch, the satellite-mounted camera will be used for visual diagnosis of the plasma thruster. Visual inspection will be critical for the initial testing of the thruster. Then, once the thruster is operational, the camera can be turned toward the earth to share breathtaking photos with enthusiastic backers.
The Team: Student Rocket Scientists
We are students, faculty and researchers at the University of Michigan:
- Prof. Benjamin Longmier: Assistant Professor, Project and science lead
- Prof. James Cutler: Assistant Professor, Spacecraft lead
- Prof. Juan Manuel Rivas Davila: Assistant Professor, DC-RF power lead
- Dr. J. P. Sheehan: Research Fellow, Science co-lead
- Simon Halpern: MBA Student, Kickstarter project manager, BSE Aerospace, M.Eng Space Systems
- Ingrid Reese: Ph.D. student (Applied Physics)
- Tim Collard: Ph.D. student (Aerospace)
- Ethan Dale: Ph.D. student (Aerospace)
- Frans Ebersohn: Ph.D. student (Aerospace)
- Jungwon Choi: Ph.D. student (Electrical)
- A standing army of talented and dedicated undergraduate students
Our team also includes personnel from the Michigan Exploration Laboratory (MXL), which has over six years of experience building and flying CubeSats.
Collaborators include NASA research centers and private industry: NASA Ames Research Center, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA Glenn Research Center, Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, Analytical Graphics Inc. and Aether Industries
Go Blue (Plasma!): Wolverine Notes of Interest
- Michigan was one of the first universities on the planet to teach aerospace engineering, it’s been on campus for 100 years
- Who can forget the all-Michigan crew aboard Apollo 15?
- We are the only school with an alumni chapter established on the Moon #FTW
- Dhani Jones loves space! We sent one of his famous bowties to the edge of space, 90,000 feet above our planet (check it out on Instagram)
- Michigan is a leader in advanced development of next-generation technologies in Electric Propulsion and CubeSats
Endorsements: Friends and Partners Show Their Support
"A tiny high-efficiency engine will enable Deep Space Industries to launch a small fleet of asteroid prospecting spacecraft, searching out targets with valuable volatiles and metals for the New Space frontier. We support this kickstarter for the astonishing low-cost capabilities this nano-size thruster will deliver for solar system exploration and development."
"In-space propulsion technologies employing water, like the [CAT], will be of increasing importance as access to water from volatile-rich asteroids becomes reality."
"CubeSats are altering the paradigm of space exploration, and we are incredibly excited whenever we get to see a development that can quite literally take the next step in that evolution! The CAT thruster would offer a wealth of new opportunities, and we're truly excited to be a part of making it a reality."
“Ever since I was young I dreamed of going to space. [The University of] Michigan seemed about as far away as outer space, and little did I know they had such an amazing role in the history of the space program. This project is the beginning of a dream, and I am so happy to see my university engaged in such awe-inspiring work.”
Stretch Goals: To the Stars
- $79,500 - Magneto - Advanced 3-Magnet nozzle for added efficiency. The magnetic nozzle will be modified to make it lighter weight and more efficient, allowing for more accurate CubeSat orbital positioning and a longer lifespan while in Earth orbit.
- $150,000 - Hyperdrive - Advanced flow controls for variable thrust, giving CAT-propelled satellites some serious maneuverability. Precise control would give the CAT engine greater flexibility so it could be used for low flying spacecraft, orbital station keeping, or interplanetary travel. We will also make an attempt at setting a Guinness Book World Record to become the fastest university-built spacecraft ever launched.
- $300,000 - H2OhMyyy! - Complete development of a water propellant system to be launched on a second CAT-propelled satellite in 18-24 months.
- $500,000 - Turbo Boost - Increased throttle range for two modes of operation 1) High thrust to climb outside of Earth's gravity well, and 2) Higher Isp (specific impulse) for faster cruising.
- $1,000,000 - Space Race - Two CAT-propelled CubeSats will race to escape the Earth first. This dual-launch will occur within approximately 24 months. Each spacecraft will have slightly different (competing) designs that will be tested and characterized on the ground and then put to the true test once in space. We will host an insane launch party in Ann Arbor on the date the spacecraft launch from the Earth (maybe in The Big House!) Wear your Scarves and Bowties and prepare for a fully catered affair. All backers will be invited regardless of donation amount.
- $1,750,000 - Close Encounters of the Awesome Kind - Help us become the highest-funded space project in Kickstarter history and vote on where your satellite goes in space. We will buy a ride on a rocket that is being kicked out into deep space. This would mean CAT escapes "for free", and then starts thrusting to get to an asteroid, the Moon or Mars. That’s right, Kickstarter + Rocket Science = Space travel to your destination of choice! The best part about this: All backers get to vote on the destination regardless of pledge amount (1 vote/backer.) We will open-source all science return data.
- $7,000,000 - Interplanetary Internet - Let's get ludicrous. If we reach $7 million, we’ll launch ten CubeSats with networking capability placed into optimal orbits by CAT engines, establishing the first interplanetary internet and paving the way for total solar system domination.
Risks and challenges
In the world of cutting edge research, sometimes there are issues that can result from technical difficulties, launch delays, and communication challenges. These are just some of the known risks that may lie ahead. Fortunately, our team is prepared to tackle these difficult issues. Our backers must understand that the CAT Mission may become delayed for any number of reasons. CAT may also have technical difficulties in orbit, be assimilated, or get blown up by a Death Star. For reference, here’s a link to our absolute worst-case scenario (http://goo.gl/K1ZUd). We will keep our backers updated regularly regarding our continued progress towards overcoming such difficult hurdles. We appreciate your patience.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
We are using passive magnetic stabilization to orient the spacecraft. Our thruster generates a magnetic field that interacts with earth's magnetic field to stabilize the satellite's motion. Once per orbit, our thruster will align correctly and we will fire for 5-10 minutes. We will then turn the thruster off and wait until the thruster is aligned again about 80 minutes later.
Check out this video to see what the orbit will look like: https://www.youtube.com/watch…
Deep space CubeSat communication is a big challenge and an ongoing research topic. There have been some recent innovations in spacecraft antenna design that improves signal pickup and broadcast. But at some point, you really just need a big dish on earth when communicating into deep space. That's why the University of Michigan recently acquired the Peach Mountain facility (http://exploration.engin.umich.edu/blog/…) which our partners at the Michigan Exploration Laboratory are working to bring online.
You can laser engrave any name or initials or name on the satellite, it doesn't have to be your own. After the campaign concludes, we will send out a backer survey for backers at each reward tier. The survey will ask what text you would like on the satellite, you are free to put anyone's initials or name or message. Some inspirations are: spouses' initials, kids or parents' initials, wedding dates, birthdays, in memoriam initials for loved ones, pets names, school names, graduation dates, sorority and fraternity lettering (we can do Greek!) and so on.
Using the lifetime of the spacecraft and the change in velocity (ΔV) produced by the thruster we project that the total distance over the lifetime of the satellite is about 100,000 km. Using the thruster's ~1 cup of fuel as propellant, this comes out to about 1 million miles per gallon. The analogy isn't perfect, but it is difficult to frame ΔV and specific impulse in terms to which the general public can relate. This was our attempt to make a rough comparison.
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