Research Questions

Our project is guided by three overarching research questions:

DISCOVERER aims to develop radically new technologies and techniques to achieve the long-term vision of (VLEO) Earth observation platforms. It will

  • identify, develop and characterise materials which enable low drag satellite platforms.
  • create and use facilities to determine the aerodynamic properties of these materials in a representative environment and validate these results on a test spacecraft in very low Earth orbit.
  • design, build and test intakes for atmosphere-breathing electric propulsion and the electric thrusters themselves
  • design and test active aerodynamic control manoeuvres to exploit the aerodynamic forces and torques available.
  • map out a clear long-term path for the exploitation.

An Atmosphere-Breathing Electric Propulsion (ABEP) system is a concept in which the residual atmosphere encountered by a satellite orbiting at low altitudes is collected and used as propellant for an electric thruster, theoretically eliminating the requirement of carrying on-board propellant. Some concepts have already been investigated but most of these have not developed beyond paper studies.

DISCOVERER proposes to explore, develop and test an IPT -based ABEP concept to establish the feasibility of such a propulsion system with realistic power and mass constraints.

The number of past spacecraft that are able to give any insight into the effect is very small. Little is known, for example, about how the flow incidence angle, the surface material or the surface roughness affects drag.

DISCOVERER aims to address this deficit by identifying and developing materials which encourage specular or quasi-specular reemission of the incident gas particles. Such materials, used in a spacecraft geometry which angles surfaces to the flow, would significantly reduce the drag on the spacecraft (an order of magnitude reduction is possible).