Air Breathing Ion Thrusters & Low Orbit Satellites

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Lower orbits are desirable for some spacecraft, but the Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t give spacecraft below 300km a long life. However ESA scientists recently demonstrated an electrical ramjet that could make low orbits viable for long term spacecraft.

  1. Watcher Zero

    It seems to be quite similar in design to the Goce satellite, that was covered in solar panels with fins to help aerodynamics keeping the correct orientation and its ion thruster was constantly active supplied by 1.3kw of solar energy from 9 m2 solar panels (with the craft capable of a peak energy output of 1.6kw) which also powered heating, communication and instruments. The 40kg of Xenon was expected to produce a lifetime of 20 months but it actually operated for 55 months with most of the fuel consumed within the last 11 months of its life. (Anyone want to calculate the MPG the 40kg of Xenon achieved?)

  2. 7tonsofsalt

    man scottley

  3. Weavilepichu

    at what point does a low-orbit satellite become a fast moving drone?

  4. Little Chickey Hudak

    Could this tech be applied to other things, like planes possibly?

  5. C Wel


  6. Aaron Curtis

    Hey Scott, could you do an episode on how steam-powered rockets work (like the piddly one Mad Mike Hughes just launched)?

  7. Michael Kincaid

    3:07 Demonstration looks like it came from MST3K

  8. dosmastrify


  9. Ruben Kelevra

    Interesting. Depending on the fuel storage capabilities these Spacecrafts might be able to change orbits frequently, which would enable them to fly to different dead sattelites and might slow them down to crash them at a desired place – cleaning up the sky. 🙂

  10. Knirin

    So ESA just built the first in orbit fuel scoop. Nice!

  11. Rykahnz

    Can you make a video on those nuclear reactors still floating around

  12. Omg Zebi

    Omg did you say the university of Toulouse? (6:34) I was there not so long ago

  13. Ryan Mitchell

    Could such an engine be used on other atmospheric worlds or just Earth?
    Also I spotted a typo on one of the graphics.

  14. J.J. Shank

    Funny how the newest regime of extraterrestrial exploration is the space *closest* to Earth.
    Great achievement!

  15. PhazonSouffle

    Bussard ramjets when?

  16. Ян Деев

    When did the idea of using air-breathing thrusters begin?

  17. Tom Haflinger

    When you mentioned the day/night issue I was thinking, “But twelve hours later, the night side would be the day side anyway.” Then I gave it some better thinking and realized that the relevant interval is more on the order of two thousand hours than twelve hours.

  18. twistedyogert

    Could you use this type of engine as a second stage?

  19. peter

    One nice benefit: you could have thousands of these in LEO and no spacejunk. Any dead satellite or bit that falls off would deorbit pretty quickly.
    Also a possible way to gather gasses for a propellant depot, potentially greatly decreasing the mass you need to launch from earth to go beyond earth orbit.

  20. glen crawford

    hello, very interesting video, made me think of a few questions if you don’t mind.
    1. Instead of xenon is there any solids that would flake off, or be made to flake off that might work for a ion drive?
    2. Where might i find an approximate value of a ion drive? dozens of videos and I have no idea what it costs to make one.. or who for that matter makes them?
    3. I believe Nasa wanted to use a 50w Ion drive (or something like that) did they ever design and/or build one? Would it just be a matter of building up bigger power sources or would they need a significantly bigger ion engine to get the higher thrust?
    appreciate if you can, or at least try, to answer my questions if not thats ok to.. enjoy your videos. Thankyou sir.

  21. David Messer

    I would think that the oxygen would cause issues over time.

  22. iStar

    The beginnings of what we call fuel scoops in Elite Dangerous ^^

  23. Supadubya

    Scott Manley this is also the key technology required for Propulsive Fluid Accumulators. If you have a satellite that can hang out in Very Low Earth Orbit for long enough, you can collect some of the atmospheric gasses present and store them for later transfer to a fuel depot in a higher orbit.
    The only missing requirements for this were an airbreathing electric thruster, an intake design for it, and a system for orbital fuel transfer between spacecraft… We already have SEVERAL ways to provide the electric power- nuclear reactors, solar panels (require collecting at significantly higher altitudes, where the panels generate relatively more power for their drag), or Beamed Power (microwaves from the ground or lasers from higher orbits- rectenna technologies to convert microwaves back to electricity have been around more than 50 years, and were used to fly a toy electric helicopter in 1969… Lasers are converted back by specialized solar panels optimized for that particular wavelength, and operate better over long distances than microwaves- though do not penetrate as well through the atmosphere…) Collecting the gasses can be performed by use of an intermediate tank, like you described, and siphoning off a portion of the collected gasses for storage rather than propulsion. Gasses intended for storage get cooled down to cryogenic temperatures (takes a lot of power per kg of gasses- but these systems would be operating on *tiny* gas flow-rates, or very intermittently on larger amounts in intermediate gas storage tanks) and then siphoned to long-term storage tanks.
    The power requirements for such a systems are large per kg collected, and most first-generation solar-powered systems are estimated would only collect a few hundred kg to a single metric ton of gasses per year (note that most systems propose separating the Oxygen from the other gasses and only storing it, as the most power-intensive step is cryogenically compressing/cooling the collected gasses and Oxygen is considered the most useful gas in LEO for its utility in chemical rocket engines…) But if the system worked at all, that would be justification for building larger, more efficient systems that could collect greater quantities of gasses.
    The ultimate goal of such a system would be collection of surplus Liquid Oxygen for storage in a fuel depot in a much higher orbit, which could then be used to refuel spacecraft headed beyond LEO (if you’re going to Mars, for instance, you only launch with enough Liquid Hydrogen to make the transfer-burn there, but no LOX for it. You pick up the LOX from the depot and save yourself quite a bit of launch-mass…)
    Also, the component technologies, like refinement/demonstration of Beamed Power and fuel-transfer systems would also be useful for countless other mission profiles, from contracting out fuel-launches to an orbital fuel-depot (let’s see who can get a ton of Liquid Hydrogen to this fuel depot cheapest… Now opening bidding…) to eventually developing Beamed Power launch-systems straight from the ground (which are capable of attaining much better TWR’s and ISP than conventional chemical rockets, and can potentially use pure Hydrogen to launch…) and orbital Beamed Power systems like Project Starshot (basically accelerating a tiny probe to a significant fraction of the speed of light using lasers on a light-sail, with the objective of sending a miniscule probe to a nearby star…)

  24. Antony Mash

    I had a proffesor who said that he worked on using the radar maped hight of the ocean to map the topography. He said that his project was shut down by the Americans because they discovered you could track a submersed submarine by tracking its wake.

  25. Aaron Consentino

    Thank you Sir.

  26. unchartedexe

    This was a really fascinating video! Thank you for sharing. I had no idea old Russian nuclear sats were orbiting the earyh

  27. Hellboy Stein

    At what lowest sealing this can give postitive thrust-drag is one interesting question.
    The other one is the pure opposite: Can it work as high as the spacestation(and beyond) and lift the orbit of satelites, spacestations, supply-ships a.s.o.?

  28. bimblinghill

    Could this function as a high efficiency upper stage? Assuming some stored propellant for the final part, a satellite could be left in a very low orbit & climb to a proper one.

  29. Penny Lane

    Exciting stuff! It would be amazing if it were possible to fly satellites as such low altitudes indefinitely!

  30. Michael Jordan

    Those lines on the thumbnail give me aliasing effects while scrolling :(

  31. PappaLitto

    When speaking of vacuum can you use normal units like Torr

  32. gecko1501

    Curious how small this can be. This might be a good solution for Elon Musks global internet idea.

  33. Artemis 360

    But night and sunny sides changes about every 24 hours. I think that you said is not quite correct. (If not please correct me)

  34. Morlanius

    at first glance for some reason I though the title of the video was “air breathing trousers”

  35. Pirkk

    Would it be possible for a spacecraft to “push” itself around Jupiter’s strong magnetic field?

  36. Wisky Docent

    Would it be possible to have an aircraft which uses this as its primary form of propulsion?

  37. Unmannedair

    Oh wow! This is a thing? I’ve always wanted to build exactly this. I’ll be following this closely. I want to modify a vasimr engine to do this.

  38. Arcturus Sirius

    The thumbnail has a cool optical illusion

  39. SuperQBoi

    the real world mixing with my kerbal knowledge is so confusing

  40. Negirno

    The second satellite image at 1:46 is actually the Hungarian city Szeged!

  41. Ryan N

    Ah one step closer to the UNSC Infinity

  42. WeirdBeard

    Please Scott, never get rid of that intro :) it’s perfect

  43. Alex Landherr

    A new take on “The Tyranny of the Tsiolkovsky Rocket Equation”?

  44. Aaron Williams

    Catching spy satellite canisters in mid-air, that sounds like an exciting job.

  45. Cracked Emerald

    Those satellites remind me of deep sea creatures in some way

  46. TheCammerhammer

    I think if anything the fact that we will have to deal with the long term corrosive effects of oxygen on the spacecraft is a good thing. It means that we are able to keep a satellite in VLEO for long enough that it becomes an issue.

  47. Harlan Connor

    Could you talk about the different types of electric propulsion?

  48. Helden Dew

    Idk what ur talking about

  49. Raphael Artemeier

    This is awesome!! could also be used for communication and internet satellites.
    Lower latency and better signal strength and so forth…

  50. Boamere

    These kind of videos are my favourite from you

  51. Izar Schärf

    Love your vids so guud thanks Scott

  52. MusikCassette

    that is soo cool
    I alsways wonderd if it is feasable to build such a thing.

  53. FanatSors

    3:00 – there are nuclear reactors in graveyard orbit?
    You know, it’s such a good idea for a space-sym game. Where one of the “quest” or “locations” would be scanning around the graveyard, finding and scrapping useful stuff from long dead sattelites.

  54. fambaa

    The walls of the spacecraft will not decay when you make them out of gold I think.
    I am bad at this, I go back into my corner.

  55. Kenny Galindo

    YASSSS Great Video!

  56. Garrett Weaver

    Never thought air breathing ion thrusters were possible. Great video, learned something new.

  57. Alex Landherr

    This must be modded into Kerbal Space Program!

  58. Logan Newman

    I really want to hear your thoughts on Mike Hughes. 😝

  59. Matthew Suffidy

    It’s a good idea to avoid decay. EM drive may do that if it really worked.

  60. Diego Cattaneo

    A I R S U C C

  61. doorhanger93

    Scott I was literally thinking about this exact idea, how did you read my mind

  62. Gareth Fairclough

    Started watching and it was at 1 view. When I finished it was about 1500. Teehee!

  63. The Yellow Dart

    Thanks for this video, really interesting! Reading the title made me say “uhh…huh?” And the video made me say “Oh. Ahh…huh!” Super cool idea that I have never even considered!

  64. Frank Abignale

    I’m just talking out my ass but it might be possible to filter out the oxygen and just use the far less reactive nitrogen for longer use.

  65. shexdensmore

    I wonder if we worked out the kink in the idea and made practical and use this on a regular basis, I wonder if;
    1. Would it create or interfere with the ionosphere?
    2. Would it affect the ozone layer?

  66. Spiz103

    So a nuclear powered RORSAT would be able to remain on station for decades? That would….. alter naval strategy rather drastically.

  67. Radio Active

    I am glad I found this video. I have heard of ‘ion engines’, but did not know there was such a thing as an ‘air breathing ion thruster’.

  68. dosmastrify

    6:23 what what? What are all these thrusters? TEACH ME SCOTT MANLEY, I WANT TO FLY SAFE

  69. Keldor314

    It seems to me that the most logical way to protect the innards of the engine would simply be to apply a very thin coating of some highly non-reactive metal, such as gold or platinum. Since we’re just talking about a few grams here, weight isn’t significant. The real question is whether it’s a problem if the inside surface of the engine is conductive. Remember that the ions and stripped electrons want to be back together, and if there’s a conductive path, they’ll use it. And electrical flow can be restricted to the surface coat just by putting a non-conductive layer beneath it, but it will still traverse the surface and give it a charge.
    Is there anyone here familiar enough with the workings of ion engines to say whether this sort of thing is a problem at all?

  70. Glenn Quagmire


  71. hvymtal

    “Lowest ceiling” that’d be floor or deck :P

  72. Matter Beam

    Thank you for this video!
    Could you PLEASE post the link to the sources of those diagrams for the intake/collector?

  73. Oleg Podprigor

    Few years ago we was thinking about atmospheric nitrogen orbital tug. For SSO orbits. It had to fly on electric propulsion. (microwave heated gas and magnetic nozzle) It was on solar panels (on sso sun is always from side, so you can place them along the craft so no big drag), it has heat radiator too. Idea was it use atmosphere nitrogen to propulsion and collect it to the tank also. so it can change orbital height in wide range. So, it was launched on 110 km orbit collect nitrogen, cooled it to liquid… yes I know lot of problems mostly because power. (only for cooling nitrogen about 2 kWth per kg…

  74. nitehawk86

    Since it is coated in solar panels and flying low, I wonder if it will cause flares like the Iridium satellites.

  75. Joseph Kane

    Boy!!!! I can remember when the coverage map shown at 1:33 was really a very high secret!

  76. LueLou

    Corrosion isn’t so much of an issue with hall effect thrusters. Gridded ion thrusters have a pair of grids, an electric field is produced between these, and ions are accelerated between them. This causes a portion of ions to collide with the second grid, which corrosion.
    Hall effect thrusters have an open cylinder, with a core in the middle. The electric field is produced by an election emmitter on the outside, meaning that their are far fewer collisions between high velocity ions, and parts of the engine. There will be a small amount of corrosion on the cathode, but that’s easy to provide redundancy for.

  77. Brian Wyters

    Why not nuclear ramjet?
    EDIT: I meant ion engine sat vs. loww flying nuclear ramjet

  78. Dmitry Alexeyev

    Such satellites would be perfect platform for kinetic warheads against ICBMs. Guys in Pentagon should be very very interested in further development of the technology.

  79. lbochtler

    Turbomolecular pump stages should increase collection efficiancy

  80. BrokenLifeCycle

    So it’s basically an overclocked tinfoil thruster you sometimes see made by hobbyists.

  81. Antoine Roquentin

    Aaah. Quality content.

  82. brute505

    you should add a list of the mods you use in your game in the description.

  83. Jamie Morrison

    Sir your videos are truly fascinating. You are teaching me things i had no idea about… thank you.

  84. GreatgoatonFire

    Looking forward to someone porting this sort of engine to KSP.

  85. Upcycle Electronics

    Please consider doing an ion drive 101 video. That seems like a very interesting subject to skim through. I did a search for “Scott Manley Ion,” and noticed the ‘Why Ion Drives use Xenon’ video but I didn’t see anything more broad about the different types of ion drives.
    Thanks for the upload,

  86. Endeavour88

    Dear Scott, thank you for your very nice video. At the IRS institute of space system of the university of Stuttgart, we are working within the EU funded DISCOVERER project , , lead by the University of Manchester, working onn the atmosphere-breathing electric propulsion system using an electrodeless thruster.
    In particular we try to remove any issue due to erosion cause by atomic oxygen by using electrodeless plasma production and acceleration, this would allow to operate technically without this issue and to be able to cope with any propellant, allowing flexibility of the propulsion system for other planet’s atmospheres, such as the CO2 of Mars.
    If you’d like you can find more infos here on our recent publication !
    A less recent publication is from IAC 2017 here:
    Or on the project’s twitter account:
    Happy to share and have a nice day!

  87. Jack Vernian

    This was very interesting, thank you. And yes, oxygen is very corrosive.

  88. pnutt

    love you scott huge fan keep it up :)

  89. matsv201

    I seen crygenic cooling of air at low vacuum pressures. I´m not sure if that is possible in that low of a atmosphere. But i se no problem with it.
    About a tank. We ar talking really a few grams of air, the tank can be rather tiny.
    With a really low orbit you would get… hmm don´t remember exactly, but about 20 minutes of day, and about 20 minutes of night.
    The intensity of the sun is about 1367W/m^2. You would get about 1/4 of active sun on the panels. That is for 40 minut orbit you get 10 minutes of active sun (if the panel is inline with the orbit and orthogonal to the sun)
    With a 3 junction cell (they are rather expensive but i se no reason not to use them in this applikation) you get about 40% of efficency. So the panels should produce about 550w/m^2 For 10 minutes that would give you 91wh of energy. Using LTO battery (pretty much the only kind that can charge that fast). That would give you just under 1 kg of battery needed. With LFP you could get away with 770 gram of battery per m^2 panel
    Of cause, if you assume that the engine is perfectly made to have a prefect thrust they would use 137 watts for 550w of solar panels. That would give you a maximum charge rate of 413w/m^2 solar. That would also decrease the amount of battery needed with a equivalent amount so you would need about 68wh/m^2 solar in turn lowering the amount of battery needed to about 750 gram for LTO or about 670 gram for LFP.
    I would probobly ad a additional NCA battery for emergency power of something failed.
    One issue with this solution is that even LTO have a very long cycle span, about 10 000, with 36 cycles a day, the battery would wear out in 9 month. Super capacitor is probobly the only way to go for this kind of aplication. The best one (avalible) is about 20wh/kg. So that would be about 3½ kg of capacitor per m^2 panel. They handle at least 100 000 cycles. So that would give you at least 7 years… probobly a bit more.

  90. zapfanzapfan

    Designing air intakes for super sonic speeds it difficult enough… air intake at orbital speed… wow! :-)

  91. Special EDy

    I’ve always wondered how air molecules hitting the spacecraft at orbital speeds don’t do damage over time, even at a microscopic scale. It would seem that they would impart a significant amount of energy onto the molecules of the spacecraft which they strike, just like alpha or beta particles.

  92. Laurel

    The thought of air molecules bouncing off the intake and getting away is kinda eerie

  93. escarfangorn

    Bussard collectors and impulse engines… damn it… Gene was an alien posing as an Earthling. ;)

  94. htomerif

    I know what we’ll do! We’ll make the thruster walls out of solidified noble gasses!
    What? We need conductors?
    If only there was some non-contact way to energize the gasses, you know, some kind of variable specific impulse microwave rocket.
    Thats not what it stands for? Oh well. It was close.

  95. Matrim Helmsgaard

    So could a satellite dip into Jupiter or Venus atmosphere and collect “fuel” for longer missions using this method?

  96. James Hansen

    Sounds kinda like a Bussard ramjet, minus the fusion of course.

  97. TheJimtanker

    They have a few of those Keyhole satellites in the Wright-Patterson Air Force Museum. They even have cutaways and the film capsules to look at. If there is ONE museum to see in your lifetime this is the one to go to.

  98. Richard van Dijk

    A lowest ceiling is also known as a floor, Scott.

  99. Kyle Palmer

    Yeah the moment I heard oxygen, nitrogen and ion in the same sentence, I thought to my self “that may be problematic”

  100. Kogure

    “So, yes, there are a few old Soviet nuclear reactors floating in space”
    Excuse me

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