The new satellites are designed for an altitude of about 100 km: this is the region where the atmosphere ends and space begins. They will be engaged in optical observation.
Scientists have previously tried to develop prototypes of propulsion systems to run on an air-gas mixture that can be obtained from the atmosphere. The systems are based on classic electric ion rocket engines, which, thanks to power from a nuclear power plant or from solar panels, create a jet thrust on an ionized gas.
The satellites, in turn, do not need a supply of fuel onboard. They will fly for years, collecting gas from the rarefied atmosphere along the flight path. Simulations have shown that such structures can be assembled and run.
Therefore, now scientists are engaged in the creation of a system for capturing rarefied gas and maintaining a given orbit while moving on such fuel. But there is a problem – shock waves – they propagate in front of a satellite flying at high speed and present a problem both for the configuration of the intake and for collecting gas.
Developers from China intend to solve this problem and assemble a demonstration satellite for flight without fuel in orbit at an altitude of 180 km.