A new breed of spacecraft engine is undergoing its first indoor test flights, thanks to a giant ‘wombat’ on the outskirts of Australia’s capital.
The Australian National University has developed a plasma thruster that uses electricity to ionise gas and produce thrust, allowing the engine to run for longer and with much less fuel than a chemical rocket.
This makes it ideal for manoeuvring satellites in orbit, or for extended voyages to places like Mars. However, rocket manufacturers need to be sure it works before trusting it on multimillion-dollar satellites.
Enter the thermal vacuum chamber dubbed ‘Wombat XL’, which is found on the top of Mount Stromlo, home to Canberra’s historic observatory.
The five-metre long cylinder mimics the airlessness of space, as well as the dramatic temperature changes of over 250 degrees that a satellite experiences as it moves in and out of Earth’s shadow.
“There’s nowhere else in Australia that can do this,” says Naomi Mathers, industry liaison engineer at the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre, a new national facility that is also equipped for assembly and integration of orbital equipment.
The plasma thruster is the first of many customers for the centre, which will also test the three satellites that Australian universities are developing for launch in 2016, as part of the European Union’s QB50 program.
“We’re here to support the Australian space industry,” says Naomi. “That means not only giving them a place to build and test equipment, but also helping to connect them with international collaborators.”