Paulo Lozano Tovar Lozano Tovar speaks at Puebla conference.Milenio/gabriel bolio

Smallest motor will drive new cube-sats

Mexican physicist describes his project at Puebla's 'festival of brilliant minds'

Piloting an unmanned aircraft, or drone, is now within financial reach for many people. Indeed, a Mexican company in Nuevo León is building and selling the craft while a firm in Guadalajara is offering flight training.

But the sky is not the limit when it comes to sending unmanned craft aloft. Satellites are next, and it’s a Mexican physicist who is working on a way of powering the new miniature models, or cube-sats.

Paulo Lozano Tovar presented “the smallest motor in the universe” this week at a unique sort of meeting in Puebla. It is billed as a festival of brilliant minds and a celebration of creativity and human curiosity. La Ciudad de las Ideas, or City of Ideas, is an annual event that reportedly brings some 70 of the world’s most brilliant minds to the Mexican city.

Judging by a report in Milenio, Lozano Tovar qualifies on all three counts — brilliance, creativity and curiosity, with the result that he anticipates that his invention will provide propulsion for two cube-sats he hopes to launch next March.

These miniature satellites have become popular with schools and universities around the world for they can be built at a much lower cost — some US $10,000 — than conventional models. Their payload typically consists of one or two scientific instruments.

But once launched into a low orbit around Earth they’re left “tumbling in space,” as Lozano Tovar puts it. Until now there hasn’t been a propulsion system that will fit onboard a cube-sat.

“The goal is to make (cube-sats) do most of the things we already do with big satellites, except in a less expensive way,” he said. “People have very big plans for these very small spacecraft.”

His motor employs tiny ion thrusters that can cheaply and efficiently move the cube-sats through space. The thrusters, which can run on solar power, contain a small amount of liquid propellant. When electrified, it creates a stream of ions that are released from tiny nozzles as charged gas, generating thrust.

The motor, including its tank of propellant, measures all of two cubic centimeters, ideal for a satellite that measures just 10 cubic centimeters. The thrusters could steer a spacecraft for months at a time, says Lozano Tovar, at a fraction of a conventional mission’s budget.

The scientist grew up in Mexico City where he used to watch every episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which inspired a lifelong interest in space exploration. He spent his free time in bookstores; there were few public libraries then.

He obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics engineering in Mexico and then went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Later, Lozano Tovar joined what is now called the Space Propulsion Laboratory at MIT. Now an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, he became director of the laboratory this year.

In Puebla this week, Lozano Tovar said one of the best teachers he ever had advised him that to solve a problem you have to be infatuated with it. Throw in brilliance, creativity and curiosity and you have a candidate for the City of Ideas — and revolutionary developments in space exploration.

Sources: Milenio (sp), MIT News (en)

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