Open-Source Satellite Propulsion Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, December 11 at noon Pacific for the Open-Source Satellite Propulsion Hack Chat with Michael Bretti!

When you look back on the development history of any technology, it’s clear that the successful products eventually reach an inflection point, the boundary between when it was a niche product and when it seems everyone has one. Take 3D-printers, for instance; for years you needed to build one if you wanted one, but now you can buy them in the grocery store.

It seems like we might be getting closer to the day when satellites reach a similar inflection point. What was once the province of nations with deep pockets and military muscles to flex has become far more approachable to those of more modest means. While launching satellites is still prohibitive and will probably remain so for years to come,  building them has come way, way down the curve lately, such that amateur radio operators have constellations of satellites at their disposal, small companies are looking seriously at what satellites can offer, and even STEM programs are starting to get students involved in satellite engineering.

Michael Bretti is on the leading edge of the trend toward making satellites more DIY friendly. He formed Applied Ion Systems to address one of the main problems nano-satellites face: propulsion. He is currently working on a range of open-source plasma thrusters for PocketQube satellites, a format that’s an eighth the size of the popular CubeSat format. His solid-fuel electric thrusters are intended to help these diminutive satellites keep station and stay in orbit longer than their propulsion-less cousins. And if all goes well, someday you’ll be able to buy them off-the-shelf.

Join us for the Hack Chat as Michael discusses the design of plasma thrusters, the details of his latest testing, and the challenges of creating something that needs to work in space.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, December 11 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Build Your Own Plasma Ball

The simple plasma ball – it graces science museums and classrooms all around the world. It shares a place with the Van de Graaf generator, with the convenient addition of spectacular plasma rays that grace its spherical surface. High voltage, aesthetically pleasing, mad science tropes – what would make a better DIY project?

For some background, plasma is the fourth state of matter, often created by heating a neutral gas or ionizing the gas in a strong electromagnetic field. The availability of free electrons allows plasma to conduct electricity and exhibit different properties from ordinary gases. It is also influenced by magnetic fields in this state and can often be found in electric arcs.

[Discrete Electronics Guy] built a plasma bulb using the casing from an old filament bulb and an ignition coil connected to a high voltage power supply. The power supply is based on the 555 timer IC. It uses a step-up transformer (the ignition coil) driven by a square wave oscillator circuit at a high frequency working as AC voltage. The square wave signal boosts the current into the power transistor, increasing its power.

The plasma is produced inside the bulb, which contains inactive noble gases. When touching the surface of the bulb, the electric arc flows to the point of contact. The glass medium protects the skin from burning, but the transparency allows the plasma to be seen. Pretty cool!

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Plasma-Powered Thrusters For Your Homebrew Satellite Needs

It seems as though every week we see something that clearly shows we’re living in the future. The components we routinely incorporate into our projects would have seemed like science fiction only a few short years ago, but now we buy them online and have them shipped to us for pennies. And what can say we’ve arrived in the future more than off-the-shelf plasma thrusters for the DIY microsatellite market?

Although [Michael Bretti] does tell us that he plans to sell these thrusters eventually, they’re not quite ready for the market yet. The AIS-gPPT3-1C series that’s currently under testing is designed for the micro-est of satellites, the PocketQube, a format with a unit size only 5 cm on a side – an eighth the size of a 1U CubeSat. The thrusters are solid-fueled, with blocks of Teflon, PEEK, or Ultem that are ablated by a stream of plasma. The gaseous exhaust is accelerated and shaped by a magnetic nozzle that’s integrated right into the thruster. The thruster is mounted directly to a PCB containing the high-voltage supplies and control electronics to interface with the PocketQube’s systems. The 34-gram thrusters have enough fuel for perhaps 500 firings, although that and the specifics of performance are yet to be tested.

If you have any interest at all in space engineering or propulsion systems, [Michael]’s site is worth a look. There’s a wealth of data there, and reading it will give you a great appreciation for plasma physics. We’ve been down that road a lot lately, with cold plasma, thin-film plasma deposition, and even explaining the mystery of plasmatic grapes.

Thanks to [miguekf] for the tip.

Fail Of The Week: Toilets And High Voltage Do Not Mix

Imagine if you will that you are enthroned upon the porcelain, minding your own business while doing your business. You’re catching up on Hackaday on your phone – c’mon, admit it – when a whir and a buzz comes from behind you. You sit up in alarm, whereupon your lower back suddenly feels as if someone is scrubbing it with a steel wool pad. Then the real pain sets in as super-hot plasma lances into your skin, the smell of burning flesh fills the bathroom, and you crack your head on the towel bar trying to escape this torture chamber in a panic.

Sound good? Then [Vije Miller]’s plasma-powered toilet air freshener is a must-build for you. We’re not entirely sure where this was going, but the name of the project seems to indicate a desire to, ahem, clear the air near your derrière with the power of ions. While that might work – we’ve recently seen an electrostatic precipitator for 3D-printer fumes – the implementation here is a bit sketchy. The ball of steel wool? It was possibly intended as a way to disperse the ions, but it served as nothing more than fuel when touched by the plasma. The Contact-esque gimballed rings? Not a clue what they’re for, but they look cool. And hats off to [Vije] for the intricate 3D-printed parts, the geartrain and linkages, and the DIY slip rings.

It may be a head-scratcher of a build, but the video below is entertaining. Check out some of [Vije]’s other projects of dubious value, like his licorice launcher or the smartphone back scratcher.

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Vacuum Sputtering With A Homemade Magnetron

“You can never be too rich or too thin,” the saying goes, and when it comes to coatings, it’s true that thinner is often better. The way to truly thin coatings, ones that are sometimes only a few atoms thick, is physical vapor deposition, or PVD, a technique where a substance is transformed into a vapor and condensed onto a substrate, sometimes using a magnetron to create a plasma.

It sounds complicated, but with a few reasonable tools and a healthy respect for high voltages, a DIY magnetron for plasma sputtering can get you started. To be fair, [Justin Atkin] worked on his setup for years, hampered initially by having to settle for found parts and general scrap for his builds. As with many things, access to a lathe and the skills to use it proved to be enabling, allowing him to make custom parts like the feedthrough for the vacuum chamber as well as a liquid-cooled base, which prevents heat from ruining the magnets that concentrate the plasma onto the target metal. Using a high-voltage DC supply made from old microwave parts, [Justin] has been able to sputter copper films onto glass slides, with limited success using other metals. He also accidentally created a couple of dichroic mirrors by sputtering with copper oxides rather than pure copper. The video below has some beautiful shots of the ghostly green and purple glow.

A rig such as this opens up a lot of possibilities, from optics to DIY semiconductors. It may not be quite as elaborate as some PVD setups we’ve seen, but we’re still pretty impressed.

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Cold Plasma Torch Produces A Cleansing Flame That Never Consumes

It’s basically a lightsaber. Except smaller. And with an invisible blade. And cold to the touch. But other than that, this homebrew cold plasma torch (YouTube, embedded below) is just like the Jedi’s choice in elegant weaponry.

Perhaps we shouldn’t kid [Justin] given how hard he worked on this project – seventeen prototypes before hitting on the version seen in the video below – but he himself notes the underwhelming appearance of the torch without the benefit of long-exposure photography. That doesn’t detract from how cool this build is, pun intended. As [Justin] explains, cold plasma or non-equilibrium plasma is an ionized stream of gas where the electron temperature is much hotter than the temperature of the heavier, more thermally conductive species in the stream. It’s pretty common stuff, seen commercially in everything from mercury vapor lamps to microbial sterilization.

It’s the latter use that piqued [Justin]’s interest and resulted in a solid year of prototyping before dialing in a design using a flyback transformer to delivery the high voltage to a stream of argon flowing inside a capillary tube. The quartz tube acts as a dielectric that keeps electrons from escaping and allows argon to be ionized and wafted gently from the tube before it can reach thermal equilibrium. The result is a faint blue glowing flame that’s barely above room temperature but still has all the reactive properties of a plasma. The video shows all the details of construction and shows the torch in action.

Hats off to [Justin] for sticking with a difficult build and coming through it with an interesting and useful device. We’ve no doubt he’ll put it to good use in his DIY biohacking lab in the coming months.

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Grape Plasma Explained

You’ve probably seen the videos of a grape — cut almost totally in half — in a microwave creates a plasma. A recent physics paper studies the phenomenon with a lot of high-tech gear and now the actual mechanism is known. [Veritasium] interviews the scientists and explains the grape plasma phenomenon in plain language. You can see the video below or read the paper directly.

Turns out the grape is about 1/10 of the microwave frequency and the refractive index of the grape at microwave frequencies might be as much as ten. A whole grape can get all the microwaves trapped inside, but two grapes — or two halves — that touch create fields strong enough to ionize the air.

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