≡ Menu

ChipSat: To the Stars via Magnetic Fields

by Larry Klaes

Tau Zero’s Larry Klaes returns with more details on a novel form of propulsion that just might, in the long term, have interstellar implications.

One of the most vital – and difficult – parts of a spacecraft is the type of propulsion it requires to move about in space. Most current forms of space propulsion, such as chemical fueled rockets, are both expensively heavy and explosively dangerous.

Dr. Mason Peck and his team at Cornell University may have found a
solution to this problem by utilizing the natural magnetic fields generated by our planet Earth and other worlds in space.

“If our research is successful, we will have devised a new way of propelling spacecraft,” declares Peck, who is an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell, and the director of the Space Systems Design Studio. “We think of it as doing more with less. Instead of using rocket fuel, which is expensive, heavy, and often toxic, this technique allows spacecraft to change their orbits by pushing against Earth’s magnetic field. Such a spacecraft would have to carry little, if any propellant, saving that valuable mass for, say, a scientific payload bound for another planet. There are many other applications, too.”

The spacecraft envisioned by Peck would take advantage of the force exerted on charged particles in an electromagnetic field known as the Lorentz force, named after the Dutch physicist who first formulated the concept, Hendrick Antoon Lorentz.

Spacecraft orbiting Earth create a charge as they travel through the plasma that surrounds our planet. Since the effect is relatively small, a spacecraft wanting to take advantage of this force must either have a lightweight surface to contain large quantities of the charge or emit charged particles such as ions or electrons with a high-energy beam.

“One of our favorite ideas is use a thin wire mesh, like hurricane fence, that forms a large cylinder. Such a structure would resemble a long metal electrodynamic windsock that pulls the spacecraft along,” says Peck.

Peck notes that the concept might be ideal for small spacecraft. Cornell graduate student Justin Atchison is developing a satellite that is the size and heft of a single wafer of silicon.

“At this small scale, a spacecraft might be surprisingly susceptible to Lorentz force effects,” explains Peck. “But rather than launching just one of these ‘ChipSats’, NASA might launch millions of them that would act as a swarm of very small sensors to detect life on another planet, provide communications, or serve as a distributed-aperture telescope many kilometers in diameter.”

While an actual satellite that could sail on Earth’s magnetic field is a number of years away, Peck notes that his team may be able to launch Atchison’s ChipSat as an inexpensive demonstration.

“Within a university environment, it is possible to build small spacecraft. Professor Mark Campbell at Cornell has done so, having built two over the past eight years. I am also working with students to build two 20-kilogram spacecraft for the United States Air Force. In a program like that, we may be able to launch a demonstration of this technology for relatively little money, while at the same time giving students the chance to learn about building spacecraft in a hands-on, experiential environment.”

Peck has numerous visions for the Planetary Magnetic Fields Propulsion project. He sees spacecraft using celestial magnetic fields that could explore other planets like Jupiter, where the magnetic field is 18,000 times stronger than Earth’s. “A spacecraft orbiting Jupiter can use this powerful magnetic field to slow down, speed up, and even hover at high altitude,” says Peck.

The concept might even be the first to take our robot explorers to other star systems. Thousands of advanced versions of the ChipSat might be slung out of our Solar System to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years from Earth.

“If we’re capable of accelerating it to ten percent of the speed of light – and that would be no small feat – it would take about 43 years to Proxima Centauri. When these small craft arrive, they might send back a single, simple signal – one bit of information confirming or denying some scientific principle; is there a blue-green planet, for example. A one or a zero might not seem like much, but sent from a distant solar system, this single bit could be the most valuable information scientists will ever have received.”

For the technical details and updates, visit the Cornell Planetary Magnetic Fields Propulsion project online.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Adam October 4, 2007, 4:31

    Hi Paul

    This idea is so cool for rapid probing. I really like Brian Wang’s idea of using Jupiter to boost chip probes to ultra-speed and use them as pellets driving a bigger vehicle.

  • Adam October 4, 2007, 9:01

    Hi again

    One reservation I have is that I haven’t read enough of the Lorentz Force papers to figure just how high capacitance driven acceleration can go yet. There seem to be some limits on the charge that a vehicle can sustain. If so it might make Wang’s concept’s applicability to IS propulsion doubtful, as Jupiter’s magnetosphere is only so big.

    What might be more capable, for interstellar purposes, is using the interaction between the Solar Wind and Jupiter’s magnetosphere to sustain high-speed dynamic soaring in a vehicle with magnetic “wings”. Paul Birch mentions this idea off-handedly in a paper on “Dynamic Compression Members”, that giant magnetic wings might be used to soar to high speeds in the magnetic boundary between the Sun and Jupiter, and the Sun and the Galactic plasma flow. He suggests speed enhancements of a factor of 60 or more. The solar wind can hit 800 km/s, perhaps allowing soaring to 48,000 km/s – 0.16c – albeit with bone-crushing accelerations required.

    I’d have to research this one for a while to come to any conclusion, but any hope of a free-ride to interstellar speeds is worth following up.

  • Adam October 4, 2007, 9:12

    Final note: to hit 0.16c at 1000 gee requires a runway of just 0.8 AU. Just 30 gees can get up to 0.028c over the same distance. And we know people can put-up with 30 gees suitably protected. Perhaps our Interstellar Soarer will have to get out into the merging region of the Solar Wind and the Galactic flow and boost to cruising speed over a few AU.

    Or we adapt to the requirements and embody ourselves as something other than flesh-and-blood?

  • Lubo October 5, 2007, 9:46

    Very good news :)
    The best way to reach the stars is to use field propulsion, because it’s the only way to protect a ship from asteroids(a supremacy over conventional rocketry). Even if we could build an antimatter propelled ship, what guarantee does it have that it will reach the target in one piece? How will the engineers feel, when they learn that the spacecraft was destroyed shortly before it’s arrival(entering another star system)? Will they ever learn the fate of the craft? How much money will be sacrificed? This is an unnessecery risk.
    Fission, fusion and antimatter are perfect for rapid interplanetary travel within our solar system, but unpractical for interstellar journeys.
    We need field propulsion.

  • ljk October 5, 2007, 10:13

    People plan and build things all the time that they will never see
    in their lifetimes but instead do it for future generations.

    Planning and designing starships is a prime example.

  • Adam October 5, 2007, 17:08

    Hi Lubo

    What field propulsion are you proposing? Got some detailed plans for us? Have you seen Yoshiro Minami’s papers in the JBIS on field drives?

  • Lubo October 6, 2007, 6:08

    Hi Adam

    When a body is moving with immediately surrounding space, then It’s mass is constant and the space around it is without mass. Or the mass of the body, moving in It’s gravitational field is constant and independant.
    To have an antigravity propulsion, we need a strong electromagnet which magnetic field has an asymmetrical power interaction with surrounding space. When we have around one pole of the magnet a fast rotating ring, then from it comes induction and according to this the field which is rotating towards another field(this coming from the magnet) makes disbalance of the intensity and interaction of the magnetic field with space. The difference in the intensity of interaction and the reaction is manifest like heterogeneity density of vacuum from one side of the magnet to another and so the ship is moving from space with high density to space with low density.
    We don’t need antimatter to achieve this. We can do it with little electric power ;)

    P.S. You mention about Yoshiro Minami’s papers. Would you give some details :)

  • ljk June 11, 2008, 14:37

    Lorentz Force propulsion Successful test

    June 09, 2008

    Since the recent trial [with explosive arcing problems], Peck
    and his colleagues at the University of Michigan and State
    University of New York, Binghamton, have successfully tested
    (but not yet published) their propulsion system, which could
    speed satellites along at more than four and a half miles a
    second. More recent tests of solder-less satellites at the
    University of Michigan have been successful, said Peck.

    Peck and his colleagues argue this new kind of mini device
    could make satellite missions more affordable and feasible.

    The propellant-less satellite idea works a lot like a TV. A ‘gun’
    at the back of the TV shoots out negatively charged electrons.
    As they speed towards the viewer, a magnet changes their
    direction. On a planetary scale, the electron would be the
    satellite zooming around the magnet, in this case the Earth.

    As the satellite zooms around the spinning Earth it would
    experience a force (known as the Lorentz force) pushing it
    at an angle perpendicular to its direction. The satellite would
    steal a tiny bit of the Earth’s energy to propel it forward.

    Other designs using the same principle, including the Electro
    Dynamic Tether, have been successfully used in orbit. One
    difference between the EDT and the new system is that the
    tether has to be aligned in a specific direction, where the
    new satellites wouldn’t need to be.

    Article is also online here:


  • ljk April 28, 2011, 2:10


    April 27, 2011

    Chip satellites — designed to blow in the solar wind — depart on Endeavour’s final launch

    Stamp-size satellites, developed at Cornell, are getting a test run aboard the space shuttle Endeavour when it launches April 29.

    Three prototypes of the chip satellites, named “Sprite,” will be mounted on the International Space Station and are designed to blow in solar wind and collect data.

    By Elizabeth Simpson

    A group of Cornell-developed, fingernail-sized satellites may travel to Saturn within the next decade, and as they flutter down through its atmosphere, they will collect data about chemistry, radiation and particle impacts.

    Three prototypes of these chip satellites, named “Sprite,” will be mounted on the International Space Station after the space shuttle Endeavour delivers them on its final flight, which is scheduled to launch at 3:47 p.m. EDT on Friday, April 29.

    President Barack Obama and alumna U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, MRP ’97, (D-Ariz.), who has not been seen publicly since the Jan. 8 attack in Tucson, Ariz., plan to attend the launch. The Endeavour crew is led by Commander Mark Kelly, Giffords’ husband.

    The thin, 1-inch-square chips, in development for three years in the lab of Mason Peck, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, will be mounted to the Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE-8) pallet, which will be attached to the space station, exposing them to the harsh conditions of space to see how they hold up and transmit data.

    Although grapefruit-size satellites have been launched before, they have functioned much like larger satellites. The flight dynamics of a chip satellite are fundamentally different from these larger “CubeSats.”

    “Their small size allows them to travel like space dust,” said Peck. “Blown by solar winds, they can ‘sail’ to distant locations without fuel. … We’re actually trying to create a new capability and build it from the ground up. … We want to learn what’s the bare minimum we can design for communication from space,” Peck said.

    When the MISSE-8 panel is removed and returned to Earth in a few years, the survival of the prototypes will be assessed.

    The trip to space is the result of a phone call about a year ago, when one of Peck’s colleagues called to ask if he had anything small that could be ready within a few weeks time to put on the MISSE-8 pallet, as a small patch of space had opened up.

    “He didn’t know that we had been working on the satellite-on-a-chip program for a long time, and over the next week we put together these prototypes,” Peck said.

    The three prototypes were built entirely by Cornell undergraduates Zac Manchester ’11 and Ryan Zhou ’10 and doctoral candidate Justin Atchison ’10.

    The prototypes are physically identical, but each transmits differently. “They all emit at the same frequency … [but] they are different and distinct from each other in ways that we can recognize on the ground,” said Peck. “That’s very important because it’s a pathfinder for something we hope to do in the future. We want to launch a huge number of these things simultaneously but still sort out which is which.”

    The current prototypes are mostly made of commercial parts, but Peck’s group has partnered with Draper Lab in Boston to work on making a more space-ready prototype.

    “We’re seeing such an explosion in personal electronics … all these components are super high performance, and they have far outstripped what the aerospace industry has at its disposal,” said Peck, noting that these technologies were used on the small satellites.

    Cornell, he added, plays a leading role in the field of chip satellites. “We are definitely the first to launch something, and we are the first to be looking at the flight dynamics as a way to enable new ways to explore space,” he said.

    Elizabeth Simpson ’14 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.