NASA Funds 'Thor's Hammer' to Toss Tiny Satellites into SpaceRockets go up on a plume of smoke. Gigantic thrusters carry cargo into orbit, where they rest until their own, smaller thrusters kick in. This is how space travel is done.But does it have to be that way? An interesting proposal from a small company presents a novel new way to get small satellites out of Earth's orbit. And it has a lot in common with a sling.
Tethers Unlimited is a small company with ambitious dreams. Their goal? Build a system that can throw small satellites into orbit around other planets. As popular as microsatellites have proven with students and small research studios, the inability to move them out of Earth's orbit limits their utility.
Credit: Tethers Unlimited Inc.
To Tethers Unlimited, the solution is obvious. Put the satellite at the end of a long tether and then spin it really fast, just like with a sling. Nicknamed 'NanoTHOR' after the demigod from Marvel Comics who loves to spin his hammer, the idea could theoretically throw a satellite out to Jupiter or beyond.
Why not just use boosters, you ask? Surely that is more efficient. While that might be the case, Tethers Unlimited is using a trick to maximize efficiency: use the booster's unspent fuel to spin the craft.
CubeSat. Credit: Weber State University
Rockets always keep a little extra in the tank in case their orbit was off. The booster stage will always have a little bit of fuel reserved. If you build a small booster into it in the right way, you could use that excess fuel, which otherwise would just burn up in the atmosphere, to spin up a microsatellite. That way, none of the microsatellite's mass needs to be wasted on fuel meant solely to get them out of orbit. They can use the extra space for the fuel they need to get into another orbit, instead.
NASA seems to like the idea, too. They have given the company $100,000 to further investigate the feasibility of flinging satellites into space. That's not enough to build a working model, but should fund the design and computer simulation of the system.
If all goes well, we might see swarms of small satellites being tossed into space to investigate asteroids and moons. And the interplanetary space game might finally be open to universities, too.