A Sony satellite? Japanese giant tests water-based space propulsion

Sony's nanosatellite has been launched to space with an experimental water vapor propulsion system.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of Sony's nanosatellite.
An artist's impression of Sony's nanosatellite.


Could water-based propulsion be the future of CubeSat navigation?

A Japanese propulsion company launched its first experimental water-based thruster technology to space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission earlier this month, a press statement reveals.

The company, called Pale Blue, installed its technology on a Sony nanosatellite. The Japanese tech giant chose Pale Blue to provide its experimental propulsion technology for its Star Sphere project, which will provide a 4K video of space for artistic and educational purposes.

Sony satellite helps test novel water propulsion system

Sony's first Star Sphere project satellite launched alongside 113 other satellites as part of the SpaceX rideshare mission Transporter 6 on January 6. The CubeSat, called Star Sphere-1, features a full-frame camera. It is also equipped with a Pale Blue water vapor propulsion system, allowing for Pale Blue's first in-space demonstration of its technology, expected to occur within the next few days.

Pale Blue's press statement explains that its small thruster will prolong the small satellite's lifetime by 2.5 years with small periodic orbital correction maneuvers. The company explains that water-vapor propellant is also a more environmentally friendly solution amid the growing demand for CubeSats, small satellites that require longer lifespans.

"I am very pleased that our safe, sustainable, and low-cost water thruster can contribute to this project, and we are committed to the development of the space industry," said Jun Asakawa, CEO and co-founder of Pale Blue.

Pale Blue was founded in 2020. The company is developing several water-based propulsion systems based on research conducted by the University of Tokyo and the Japanese space agency (JAXA).

Water and light propulsion could be the future of CubeSat navigation

Water vapor propulsion isn't the only method that shows great promise for sustainable and affordable CubeSate navigation.

The Light Sail 2 mission showed that flight by light was possible. It used a 32-square-meter (244-square-foot) sail made out of mylar to raise a small CubeSat spacecraft’s orbit by 1.9 miles (3.2 km). Essentially, all a light sail CubeSat mission needs is this sail to keep itself in orbit for a surprisingly long time using only the power of photons from sunlight.

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In 2019, the Planetary Society launched a solar sail demonstrator called Light Sail 2 to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rideshare mission. In an interview with IE, Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye said LightSail 2 completely exceeded his expectations.

LightSail 2 finally burned up in Earth's atmosphere last year, though its demonstration of light propulsion has informed subsequent NASA missions. If Pale Blue's water propulsion system is as effective as the company claims, the Sony Star Sphere-1 mission could have a similar legacy.

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