Small satellites are relatively cheap to send into space, but since they get stuck in orbit they can't travel all that far once they're there. But a team at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland is hoping to fix this with a new propulsion system designed to help nanosatellites (weighing between 1-100 kilograms) break free and reach further into space. Called MicroThrust, the current prototype weighs just 200 grams, including its ionic liquid fuel. And unlike traditional systems, it doesn't burn this fuel — it ejects it to create thrust. This gives satellites the ability to gradually pick up speed while in orbit, and eventually break free to reach new destinations. For instance, the team estimates that it would take around six months to reach the Moon using MicroThrust.
In addition to the Moon, the team hopes that the electrospray thruster will allow nanosatellites to reach other objects near Earth or even Mars. And plans are already in place for the technology to be used in a few upcoming projects, including CleanSpace One — a satellite that will help gather space junk and bring it back to Earth for disposal. However, it's still a ways off, as CleanSpace One isn't expected to launch for another three or four years.