How Decades of Expertise With the Fourth State of Matter Could Bring Satellites Closer to Earth

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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL); image source: Adobe Stock 103045902

March 12, 2024 | Originally published by Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) on February 27, 2024

Thousands of satellites take pictures, gather information, and relay internet traffic from high above the Earth. Now, the challenge is making satellites that operate closer to home in what is called a very low earth orbit (VLEO), where there is ample space for additional satellites, and the pictures taken would be clearer.

Working at an altitude with air would mean more force would be needed to propel the satellite forward, but many scientists believe there is also an advantage:  the air could be used as the propellant. They say charged particles of air-breathing plasma — the fourth state of matter — could be used to propel the thrusters, potentially lightening the load and increasing the satellite’s life span. A satellite’s thrusters are essential to their ongoing operation, as they push the satellite around to keep it in the Earth’s orbit.

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