Small satellite propulsion begins to prove itself

Luis Gomes was fed up with propulsion guarantees.

As chief know-how officer for Surrey Satellite tv for pc Know-how Ltd. in 2018, Gomes instructed his assistant to halt all conferences with spacecraft propulsion corporations.

“Two corporations every week had been coming in with the identical designs and speaking to me about the identical issues,” stated Gomes, now CEO of Sweden’s AAC Clyde Area. “They had been simply attempting to get potential prospects so they might return to their traders and get cash to develop it. I instructed them, ‘I’ll wait till show your know-how after which you’ll be able to come again to me.’”

Three years later, Gomes together with the remainder of the small satellite tv for pc group is beginning to see that proof.

“There are developments being made throughout the waterfront,” Bruce Yost, director of the NASA Small Spacecraft Techniques Digital Institute, stated Aug. 10 on the digital Small Satellite tv for pc Convention.

5 years in the past, cubesats and microsatellites had few cheap propulsion choices. Within the final couple of years, greater than a dozen corporations have reported profitable firing of latest satellites thrusters, amongst them: Enpulsion of Austria; Germany’s Morpheus Area; French companies Exotrail and ThrustMe; Denmark’s GomSpace; D-Orbit and T4i of Italy; Daybreak Aerospace of the Netherlands; NanoAvionics of Lithuania; and U.S. corporations Apollo Fusion, Bradford Area, Momentus, Section 4, Rocket Lab, Stellar Exploration and Tethers Limitless. (Momentus thruster efficiency claims had been later questioned by the U.S. Securities and Trade Fee.)

Nonetheless, it’s too quickly to say a lot concerning the efficiency of lots of the new cubesat and small satellite tv for pc thrusters.

“There are a variety of missions that not too long ago launched or are identified to be coming within the subsequent yr or so,” stated Gabriel Benavides, a researcher and engineer within the NASA Glenn Analysis Middle’s Electrical Propulsion Techniques department. “In the intervening time, we nonetheless have pretty restricted flight knowledge on these techniques.”


The primary thrusters from Accion Techniques and Benchmark Area Techniques reached orbit June 30 on satellites launched as rideshares on the SpaceX Transporter-2 flight. The 2 corporations don’t but have flight knowledge to share.

“These are paying prospects with operational missions,” stated Benchmark CEO Ryan McDevitt. “They’ll use it once they want it over the following weeks and months.”

Even when prospects start firing thrusters, it could possibly take years to watch the complete vary of propulsive capabilities together with preliminary orbit maneuvers, long-term stationkeeping and deorbit on the conclusion of missions.

How vital are flight exams for thrusters? Consultants supply a spread of opinions.

In depth ground-based testing can confirm 80 to 85 p.c of thruster efficiency and habits, stated Natalya Bailey, Accion Techniques co-founder and CTO. In-orbit demonstrations confirm that final 15 to twenty p.c and present that thrusters work as designed, she added.

Umair Siddiqui, Section 4 CTO, noticed that firsthand. Regardless of his conviction that Section 4’s Maxwell engine would work in orbit precisely because it had in intensive testing on the bottom, he felt intense reduction when he noticed proof earlier this yr.

“I had essentially the most surprising visceral response,” Siddiqui stated. “In 5 years, we went from a figment of creativeness to a unit that’s serving mission wants for purchasers in area. That every one was realized in a sense.”

NASA considers propulsion techniques with area flight heritage to be decrease danger than techniques examined solely on the bottom, making the know-how with flight heritage extra prone to win area company funding and to be included in missions, Yost stated.

Sure applied sciences, although, might be adequately examined on the bottom.

For some chemical propulsion and heritage electrical propulsion techniques, “we’ve developed a variety of good floor take a look at amenities and methodologies,” Benavides stated. In these circumstances, “it’s logical to do as a lot testing as you’ll be able to feasibly inside your price range on the bottom to scale back the associated fee,” he added.


When corporations report thruster firings in orbit, it’s vital to grasp precisely what they’ve proven.

“Should you open a valve with a liquid to outgas, it is going to present some thrust,” stated Tomas Svitek, Stellar Exploration president. “That doesn’t robotically suggest that this can be a helpful propulsion system.”

Brennan Bryant, Stellar Exploration design engineer, is proven with the Stellar Exploration propulsion module that helped propel an EchoStar nanosatellite to safe its declare to a worldwide S-band slot. Credit score: Stellar Exploration

Even when a thruster produces a selected change in velocity for one cubesat or small satellite tv for pc in low Earth orbit, it could imply that the physics concerned is sound nevertheless it doesn’t essentially imply future thrusters produced by the corporate will work equally properly.

“Propulsion techniques have to be thought-about within the context of the anticipated mission,” Benavides stated. “A number of missions get into bother once they assume substantial similarity between their mission and different missions, which can or could not exist. Then, late of their mission improvement they discover that there are points with propulsion that they didn’t understand.”

“I strongly encourage any mission contemplating a number of propulsion applied sciences to do a deep dive and perceive the know-how readiness stage of any propulsion system inside the context of your mission and your mission’s necessities,” Benavides stated. “Try this early and it’ll save a variety of prices and complications in the long term.”


Propulsion is commonly a spacecraft’s most costly and complicated system.

“If you wish to purchase low-power processors, you will get them from enormous terrestrial markets,” stated Brad King, Orbion Area Know-how CEO and founder. “If you wish to purchase GPS receivers, you will get them from terrestrial markets. However the iPhone doesn’t but have a thruster,” he stated, making propulsion techniques “one of many final remaining purely area applied sciences.”

Since propulsion can declare a big share of a satellite tv for pc price range, some corporations are keen to seek out cheap choices.

“Everybody needs quick, low-cost and dangerous till one thing occurs,” stated Alexander Reissner, Enpulsion CEO and founder.

To judge danger, prospects typically ask propulsion suppliers concerning the technical readiness stage (TRL) of thrusters.

Some corporations fireplace thrusters in area for the primary time and start “shouting round from the rooftops ‘I’m TRL 9 as a result of I’m working in area,’” Reissner stated.

Know-how doesn’t earn the moniker TRL 9, nonetheless, till it completes a full mission. If it’s a thruster-demonstration mission, that’s far simpler to finish than a multiyear Earth-observation or communications mission.

“Placing your product in orbit and turning it on for an hour does nothing to show that you could meet a 5,000-hour lifetime,” King stated.

This text initially appeared within the August 2021 subject of table4 journal.

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