[Via Satellite 01-20-2015] Accion Systems, a startup company founded by graduate students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Space Propulsion Lab, is preparing to commercialize a new miniaturized electric propulsion system for small satellites. Using an ionic liquid propellant, the company’s electric thrusters are expected to see their first use this year, along with the fulfillment of product preorders.
“2015 we are saying is the year of the launch for Accion Systems, not just product launch like other startups, but actually launching into space. We’re going to take our first product all the way through Preliminary Design Review (PDR) and Critical Design Review (CDR), and then partner with someone to launch it by the end of the year,” Natalya Brikner, Accion Systems CEO, told Via Satellite.
Accion Systems’ thrusters accelerate charged particles to produce thrust, and are qualified for use on satellites seeking to launch via rideshare opportunities. Electric propulsion is challenging to scale down for small spacecraft without melting the device, but Accion System has discovered a way to produce thrusters as small as a pack of chewing gum.
“We started from scratch with our approach and got rid of the neutral gas propellant, meaning we don’t need a large ionization volume, as everything is quite compact,” explained Brikner. “The thruster head itself — where all of the charged particle acceleration and ionization happens — is about a millimeter long compared to tens of centimeters. The other unique approach that we’re taking is in our manufacturing. Most components in the aerospace industry are made like one-off custom pieces of hardware, whereas we’re taking a batch approach and making thrusters the same way computer chips are made. So in one run we can make 200 thrusters at a time.”
For Brikner, this is the second space propulsion company she has started. The first did not take off. Crestfallen perhaps, but undeterred, she saw the opportunity to start Accion Systems when others began pursuing the technology she and other students were working on. Accion Systems recently received $2 million in seed stage funding for its ion electrospray propulsion technology.
“A lot of organizations and industry were trying to buy the systems from MIT or they were trying to license the intellectual property. We realized we were working on something there was some demand for. That, combined with my previous entrepreneurial interest prompted me and some of my lab-mates to form a company,” she said.
As graduate students, Brikner and partners helped build four satellites that are slated to launch in May this year. Brikner said the company now has preorders for use in an interplanetary transfer mission, and another for a small satellite operator.
“Propulsion for nano and microsatellites has been limited to date — in part due to available technology but also due to the acceptable risk profile for launch. As smaller satellites are launched via opportunistic rideshare arrangements, the primary payload operator generally does not tolerate the added risk that a propulsion system would create. Given that universities and emerging commercial ventures depend on these free or low-cost launches, the default option has been no propulsion — a limit to the range of potential applications small satellites could undertake,” Carolyn Belle, analyst at NSR told Via Satellite, adding that propulsion systems that mitigate risk to the primary payload like that of Accion Systems’ have been a popular area of research.
Laying out prime market opportunities, Brikner highlighted satellite deployments from the International Space Station (ISS), where atmospheric drag causes spacecraft to deorbit quicker than at higher altitudes. Interplanetary missions of 6U and 12U satellites traveling to Mars or a Lagrange point are also opportunities for propulsion systems on SmallSats.
Accion Systems’ miniaturized thrusters are designed for satellites ranging from CubeSats up to around 100 to 150 kilograms. Brikner said there is nothing technologically precluding the company from scaling up to address very large satellites in a few years, but for now the easier path to starting out coupled with the limited options for SmallSat designers made low-mass spacecraft the ideal first target. The company is soon shipping a demo unit to a potential customer for some ground tests. Brikner said Accion Systems’ big goal for 2015 is to launch a satellite with their product to vet the process outside of an academic environment.
“It’s one thing that MIT is demonstrating the technology, but as the Accion team we want to go through the exercise too to get all our manufacturing channels in place, to work as a team and actually build a product. Through that exercise we’ll set up all of the necessary steps so that we can start to fill up the preorders towards the end of the year,” she said.
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