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Mothballs to power spacecraft into orbit

A smell we all remember from our grandmother’s wardrobe could be the newest thing in space technology.

Australian scientists are testing whether mothball chemicals can power satellite rocket thruster systems.

The innovative propulsion process heats solid naphthalene until it becomes a gas that is forced through thrusters, powering the rocket.

“Naphthalene is ideal because when it is heated it goes straight from solid to gas, with no liquid sloshing about in the thruster,” engineer Dimitrios Tsifakis said on Thursday.

“It is also cheap, non-corrosive and easily available – you can get mothballs in the supermarket.”

Australian National University researchers designed and built the new thruster system in six months.

It is named Bogong after the large Australian moth species and gives off the familiar naphthalene odour.

It also has the potential to extend satellite life by up to 20 per cent, the equivalent of an extra year of service.

The simple design uses more naphthalene propellant than a plasma thruster system but it is lighter overall because it requires less electronics.

Naphthalene is also more than 10 times cheaper and less damaging on rockets than other propellents used in chemical or ion systems.

“It won’t win any performance records but it’s super simple and will get the job done,” Mr Tsifakis said.

The Bogong will launch in mid-2022 when it will attempt to power a small satellite carrying an air traffic management system into space.

Scaled down satellites or CubeSats have become popular in recent years due to their low cost compared to conventional satellites.

They’re about the size of a loaf of bread and require a very simple propulsion system, making the Bogong perfect for the job.

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