Superconducting magnet thrusters are to be tested aboard the ISS

Superconducting magnets could be used for spacecraft radiation shields and thrusters.
Chris Young
ISS in orbit
ISS in orbit

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U.S. space firm Nanoracks announced it would team up with New Zealand-based Paihau—Robinson Research Institute to test a superconducting magnet technology for space propulsion on the International Space Station (ISS).

The new experimental form of space propulsion, called applied-field magneto plasma dynamic (AF-MPD) thrusters, uses high-temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets for efficient propulsion, a press statement reveals.

Superconducting space magnets

Superconductors, materials that conduct electricity with no resistance, typically require temperatures close to absolute zero (-460 degrees Fahrenheit or -273 degrees Celsius) to function effectively. On the other hand, high-temperature superconductors (HTS) operate at more manageable temperatures of -321.1 degrees F (-196.2 degrees C). HTS magnets also generate stronger fields and can be built to fit in smaller spaces, according to the Paihau—Robinson Research Institute.

For the experimental AF-MPD thrusters, the research institute used a combination of magnetic and electric fields to generate thrust. They believe their thrusters could provide a novel form of propulsion for large spacecraft.

The research institute's payload will launch to the ISS, where astronauts will install it into the Nanoracks External Platform (NREP). Engineers will then operate the magnet for several months. According to the press statement, their goal is to demonstrate "the ability to generate a core magnetic field thousands of times stronger than that of the Earth, along with shielding to ensure the safety and stability of surrounding equipment."

The research institute also mentions the technology has many other practical potential applications in space. These include strong radiation shielding for astronauts and using the magnets to alter a spacecraft's orientation in orbit by "pushing" against the Earth's magnetic field.

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A big spaceflight milestone

According to Nanoracks' Maggie Ahern, the payload will launch no earlier than the first quarter of 2024. Nanoracks' NREP is possible thanks to a Space Act Agreement between the U.S. firm and NASA. Nanoracks has built parts of the ISS and it recently revealed a new method for taking out trash on the orbital station.

"We’re thrilled to enable this opportunity for Paihau—Robinson," she said. "This is exactly why our team built the external platform. We want our customers to take step-by-step approaches to qualifying their technology in the harsh space environment, while having the opportunity to review data and even receive their hardware back if desired. Congratulations to the Paihau—Robinson team for this first big milestone in their spaceflight journey."

To date, the mass and power requirements of these types of magnets have proved too great an obstacle to using them in space. The Paihau—Robinson Research Institute believes its tests could lead to more compact HTS magnets, leading to a host of previously unavailable applications.

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