Moth balls in space!

Bogong moth against space background

The chemical in moth balls, naphthalene, will be tested in space in a new satellite rocket propulsion system, Bogong, developed at The Australian National University (ANU).

Moving satellites around after their deployment is a challenge. Often they are equipped with thrusters based on hot charged gas (plasma) systems. These systems not only require propellant, but also complex electromagnetic componentry.

This complexity inspired us to search for a simpler system: our new Bogong thruster does not use plasma, but just hot naphthalene as the propellant.

That’s right: moth balls.

Naphthalene is perfect because it sublimates (goes straight from solid to gas) when heated, which means no residue. It’s also cheap, readily available and isn’t corrosive.

Bogong’s operation is simple: a heating element at about 80 degrees Celsius turns the solid naphthalene to a gas, which then accelerates out through the exhaust hole to provide the rocket propulsion.

But there is a trade-off for Bogong’s simplicity: it consumes more fuel than a plasma thruster. However, this extra weight is compensated for by the lighter thruster system, and a simpler system means a lot less can go wrong.

Our new thruster design could extend satellite life by up to 20 per cent. That’s equivalent to an extra year of service.

Bogong will launch into space in mid-2022 amid a group of half a dozen small satellites that Australian space services company Skykraft will test for tracking and communication with aircraft.

But there is a trade-off for Bogong’s simplicity: it consumes more fuel than a plasma thruster. However, this extra weight is compensated for by the lighter thruster system, and a simpler system means a lot less can go wrong.

Our new thruster design could extend satellite life by up to 20 per cent. That’s equivalent to an extra year of service.

Bogong will launch into space in mid-2022 amid a group of half a dozen small satellites that Australian space services company Skykraft will test for tracking and communication with aircraft.

Bogong was developed by PhD scholar Dimitrios Tsifakis the Space Plasma Power and Propulsion group (ANU Research School of Physics), led by Professor Christine Charles. Professor Rod Boswell (Boswell Technologies) facilitated the launch opportunity with Skykraft. The development of the prototype into a space ready thruster was led by Mahdi Davoodianidalik and ably assisted by Matt Shadwell and Horst Punzmann.

I’ll declare my interest on this one: I work with Boswell Technologies. But this is such a great story there was no way I wasn’t going to tell it. And I can paste the story word for word because I wrote it! There was also a media release from the ANU.

I talked about this with Danny Hoyland on West Bremer Radio on 11 December. Listen each week: Saturday 7.40 am, West Bremer Radio.

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