A student-built CubeSat from the University of Michigan will investigate whether small satellites can be maintained in low Earth orbit without thrusters or propellant. Scheduled to launch from the Mojave Air and Space Port on Virgin Orbit’s Launch Demo 2 on January 10, 2020, the Miniature Tether Electrodynamics Experiment-1 (MiTEE-1) will test the concept of using the Earth’s magnetic field to generate thrust.
About 60 percent of all satellites are in low Earth orbit. This is a bit of a problem because, though on a human scale it’s a vacuum, there’s actually a thin trace of atmosphere present – enough to generate drag, which causes the satellite’s orbit to decay until it burns up on reentry.
The usual way to overcome this is to use thrusters to boost the satellite into a higher orbit, but for smaller spacecraft, and especially CubeSats, this isn’t currently an option – although efforts like the ThermaSat design are looking to bring lightweight propulsion systems to CubeSats. The result is that many perfectly good pieces of hardware are destroyed prematurely, deorbiting in a matter of months or even days.