If you're familiar with the Marvel Comics character Thor, either from comic books or this year's Avengers movie, you've seen how he spins his hammer before he throws it or uses it to fly. NASA has announced that they have funded a new project that will use this 'Thor's Hammer' approach to launching satellites towards other planets.
NanoTHOR will involve launching tiny satellites — called nanosatellites — into orbit on a multistage rocket, with the satellites attached to the upper stage of the rocket by a thin, kilometres-long tether. Once in orbit, the final stage will spin, with the satellite at the end of the tether, releasing it at just the right moment to propel it to its destination.
"Using a few tricks, we could get that system spinning so the rocket upper stage could swing the nanosatellite out of Earth's orbit and on to the moon or an interplanetary trajectory," said Robert Hoyt, CEO and chief scientist of Tethers Unlimited Inc., according to Innovation News Daily.
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The advantage of this system is the comparative low cost of nanosatellites. Since they will not need large thrusters to propel themselves out of Earth's orbit, they can be made smaller and cheaper than current satellites, and can be launched in multiples, thus potentially spreading the cost of reaching space over multiple projects or missions. They can even be attached as 'piggy-backs' on other missions, using leftover fuel and momentum from the stages of rockets that launch other things into orbit.
NASA already has projects in mind that would benefit from this kind of system. They foresee being able to launch fleets of nanosatellites into orbit around the sun to search for potentially-dangerous Near-Earth Objects, to map and forecast solar weather conditions, and to act as communications relays for other missions.