Air-breathing propulsion to explore the yet unexplored, to exploit a yet unexploited Earth orbit
The AETHER project aims at the early design of a ram-EP thruster, from the intake to the ionisation stage, to the acceleration stage which would counteract atmospheric drag and keep the spacecraft in very Low Earth Orbit
The concept will be demonstrated with a ram-EP prototype operated in a relevant environment, with a particle flow generator able to re-produce the residual atmosphere at about 200 km, to test the system capability in producing a net positive thrust against drag
The ultimate goal of AETHER is to prepare the ram-EP technology for a future In orbit Demonstration mission, and to advance Europe at the forefront of the still unexplored air-breathing electric propulsion scenario
If you wish to effectively go in very Low Earth Orbit
you must get rid of onboard propellant
and exploit what you have around you: atmosphere!
Very Low Earth Orbits (VLEO, from 160 to 250 km from Earth) are extremely interesting for Earth Observation and null-lag telecommunication missions, but impose severe limitations to spacecrafts since at these heights atmospheric drag is so high it has to be continuously compensated with positive thrust.
This means the spacecraft has to always turn on its propulsion system, which in turn means a lot of propellant onboard.
You finish the propellant, you deorbit: it’s a matter of days.
AETHER wants to exploit the atmosphere by collecting the molecules and accelerating them to counteract drag, so to allow a VLEO mission to last months if not years. Without any tank onboard!