UTSI technology may have a far-reaching impact on the future of micro-satellite space travel


Over the last few decades, the field of satellite technology has started to shift toward miniaturization. Instead of satellites the size of cars or school buses, researchers are now creating satellites as small as a Rubik’s® Cube to offer a more affordable, reliable way to explore space. There’s just one problem: a lack of effective, miniaturized propulsion systems suited for these small satellites.

A group of researchers from the University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI) is seeking to solve this issue and has created a technology that may have a far-reaching impact on the future of micro-satellite space travel.

Lino Costa is a Research Assistant Professor who specializes in laser materials processing, nanomaterials, and materials science and characterization. Trevor Moeller is the Graduate Programs Director and an Associate Professor at UTSI. His research interests include rocket propulsion, electric propulsion devices, high-temperature gases, and electromagnetic acceleration. Moeller and Costa have been with UTSI for over 16 years and believe it is the ideal setting with “incredible” facilities to support their research and interests. Costa and Moeller, alongside two other researchers, Alexander Terekhov and Brian Canfield, are developing a novel electric micro-propulsion technology: Micro Scalable Thrusters for Adaptive Mission Profiles in Space (μSTAMPS).

“I see this as an enabling technology for constellations of satellites that have missions that can’t be carried out without the propulsion system. They need something that doesn’t take up all the mass and volume available on the satellite,” says Moeller. “These satellites offer a really amazing amount of advancement that is just waiting for a technology like this to come to fruition.”

With μSTAMPS, micro-satellites can carry out new and longer missions that may involve precise maneuvers like rendezvous, orbit-keeping and attitude control, as well as specific autonomous control of swarms. Essentially, μSTAMPS may enable a new future of satellite space travel.

“The ultimate goal would be in a few years’ time to have one of our systems designed at UTSI aboard a miniaturized satellite that is doing an interesting mission in space and have it be successful,” says Costa.

In late 2020, Costa, Moeller, Canfield, Terekhov, and Jones, a recently graduated Master’s degree student, filed an invention disclosure with UTRF. They are grateful for UTRF’s support so that they can focus on what they do best: research.

Alexander Terekhov and Brian Canfield inside the clean room located at the Center for Laser Applications (UTSI).

“As academics, we don’t necessarily understand what it takes to bring something to market, where people can get the true benefit of it,” says Moeller. “UTRF is helping us identify partners in addition to protecting our IP so that we can get things to market.”

With UTRF, Costa and Moeller are currently meeting with companies that might be interested in commercializing their technology.

“Costa and Moeller are dedicated researchers who have made numerous advances in their fields over the last decade and a half,” says Andreana Leskovjan, UTRF Technology Manager. “UTRF is grateful for their expertise and eagerness to bring their ideas to market.”

Moeller knew he wanted to work with rockets from a young age. As a child, he remembers taking photos of space shuttle launches on his TV with a Polaroid camera. This love of space shaped his trajectory from high school through graduate school. “I was lucky I didn’t get there and find out I hated it,” he jokes.

“I always knew I wanted to go into academia, because I find it rewarding to teach and pass on information and knowledge in areas that I am passionate about,” continues Moeller. “Going into the route of a research professor-type role allowed me to do that, in addition to continuing to stay on the cutting edge of my field. It was the best of both worlds.”

Costa is driven by the desire to learn and try new things. From collaborating with various faculty members to helping local businesses solve interesting problems, a major focus in his career has been “making things better” by helping develop ideas into something that will benefit people and society. He first became interested in his field after a professor in his graduate program told him about the work he was doing with lasers.

“The only lasers I knew of were the Star Wars lightsabers,” jokes Costa.