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[Summer series] Ane Aanesland - Head in the stars

Ane Aanesland, researcher at the Laboratory of Plasma Physics, inventor of a propulsion system for nanosatellites.

©Silvère Leprovost

Stars and satellites – the only lights in the polar night during winter in northern Norway – have been the inspiration of the life of Ane Aanesland, CNRS researcher at École Polytechnique’s Plasma Physics Laboratory, who invented, in association with Dmytro Rafalskyi, an ion propulsion system for powering small satellites.

Smaller engines

Over the past five years a booming market has developed for this new type of satellite, 1 to 10% the size and mass of conventional satellites. Their propulsion engines consist of a source of positive ions which, accelerated at a very high speed, creats the moving force, and an electron source to electrically neutralize this ion flow. Until now, the fact that these two sources were separate constituted a hurdle to miniaturization. “We drew inspiration from precision etching for microelectronics fabrication that uses a method of acceleration ions towards surfaces and simultaniously provide electrons. By using this type of acceleration in miniaturized engines, we get the same propulsion with a system 40% the size of conventional type engine,” Ane Aansland explains. From this scientific discovery was born the start-up ThrustMe. “This new family of ion thrusters will lead to cheaper and more robust thrusters that can easily be mass produced,” said Ane Aansland, ThrustMe's co-founder and CEO. These engines also increase the mission time of the satellites by placing them in the right orbit and deploying them in constellations.

Applications in imagery, meteorology and communications

The enthusiasm of this lover of wide open spaces, who grew up watching the aurora borealis, is commensurate with her hopes for the great many applications for small satellites, especially in big data. Small spacecraft can be deployed in great numbers in space to improve the instantaneous imaging of the Earth, enabling an image of the entire planet to be constructed in a few hours instead of a week, which is about the time it takes now with conventional large satellites. “Analyzing phenomena such as urban development or the evolution of agriculture based on data collected by such satellites will allow us to predict the future with greater precision,” adds Ane Aansland.  Another area of application for these small satellites is meteorology: “Improved weather forecasting would make it possible to optimize aircraft flight paths, for example, and thereby reduce fuel use by 20%,” says the researcher-cum-entrepreneur who remains ever attentive to the environment and to the social impact of her research. Ane Aansland hopes that providing global access to high-speed Internet to half of the world’s population that is not yet connected will help “improve life on Earth.”

For Ane Aansland, breakthrough innovation needs fundamental research more than ever. Without the support of her laboratory and the technology transfer office of l’X, her work could not have become part of the current “space revolution.”

Find all the portraits of researchers of our summer series, here.