Meet The Makers Of Small Plasma Rockets That Will Propel The Coming Space Revolution
Space technology is all the rage these days. But when most people think about it, they picture giant rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, designed to take astronauts to the moon and Mars. It’s one of many amazing breakthroughs for certain. Yet Brad King, CEO and co-founder of Orbion Space Technology, will tell you that’s only a tiny part of what’s coming when it comes to space innovations.
Orbion is a propulsion technology start-up based in Houghton, Michigan. Founded in 2017, the company raised $10 million in funding in its Series A round this past October. They think they’re jumping into the market at just the right time, with potential market opportunities growing substantially. “It’s not inconceivable that in seven years, the business just for small propulsion units will reach the $1 billion mark for annual sales,” he said. “Just last year, Morgan Stanley and Merrell Lynch said that space is the next trillion-dollar economic opportunity.”
The Orbion 20 thruster is designed for small satellite propulsion
Orbion - which was just this week named Up- and-Coming Company of the Year by the Michigan Venture Capital Association - is focused on serving what King says will soon be an enormous market in small satellites. “Framing our whole business and reason for being is ‘New Space,’” he explained. “For the last four decades, there’s been an average of about 150 satellites launched per year. In coming years, that’s going to jump to 3,000 satellites a year. SpaceX, Amazon and the U.S. Space Development Agency – the precursor to the Space Force – will do thousands each.”
The impact of that huge acceleration in launches will change the space industry tremendously. “It’s morphing toward mass production, assembly-line production,” said King. “It will break every norm the industry has ever had, including satellite structures, batteries, solar cells, radios – and propulsion.” King and co-founder Jason Sommerville, Orbion’s CTO, saw opportunity in that final category. “We saw technical white space in propulsion – it’s the only space-specific application,” King said.
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You may have read about the ever-increasing problem of “space junk” – small pieces of orbital debris from past launches and satellite collisions that are floating around the planet, presenting an ever-greater threat to the valuable technology that’s also up there. That’s one reason for the need for propulsion for that fleet of new satellites King predicts. But even more fundamentally, first each satellite needs to get where it’s going. “In the future, satellites will get into space by sharing rides – there will be rockets with 100 satellites in the nose cone,” said King. “When they get to the right height, they’ll all be released, and will need propulsion to get to their final destination. During their operating lives, they’ll also need it to avoid collisions. And to avoid making more space junk, at the end of their lives they’ll maneuver to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.”
Orbion’s technology is a small plasma thruster. Its basic operation is straightforward. “It’s a rocket – nothing magic,” explained King. “It shoots matter in one direction to move the satellite in the opposite direction. Typical rockets burn stuff to create thrust, but they run out of fuel and the mission is over.” Orbion’s plasma technology, by contrast, uses electric current both to ionize its Xenon propellant and direct it to create thrust. “Plasma is four to five times more efficient than standard fuels,” King said.
The highly efficient thruster carries all the fuel it will need for the satellite's lifespan
The system is designed for satellites about the size of a dishwasher, so we’re not talking about tremendous amounts of thrust here. “The propulsions force is about the weight of a dime in your hand,” King offered. “Our thruster is about the size of a coffee cup.”
Orbion is on the cusp of mass production of its thrusters. “Our design is complete for a unit that’s amenable to mass production,” said King. “We’ve identified and captured the intellectual property for the key stations of the assembly line, and we’ve partnered with a manufacturer that’s experienced in the industry.” The team has begun work on the next phase of prototyping automated production equipment as well.
Orbion's first commercial launch is scheduled for late next year
In the meantime, as they ramp up for full-scale production, they’re in the middle of working on their first commercial units. “As part of our phased production plan, we’re building the first few units by hand,” King said. “We’re scheduled to deliver the first one in the third quarter of 2020, with its launch scheduled for the end of that year.”
The Orbion team sees tremendous opportunities in the future. “The general public is not aware of how fast the space environment is changing,” said King. “There are over 100 new companies in the segment starting up right now, working on things like the next phase of the Internet and mapping anything on the face of the Earth that’s over 40 centimeters in size.”
All that comes at a time when the cost to get things into space is dropping dramatically. “Access to space has been made much easier,” King explained. “The cost to build and launch a satellite right now is about the same as what it costs to build and launch a new software app.”
King thinks Orbion is well-positioned for what potential customers are looking for. “Because space is so risky, the industry is resistant to revolutionary new devices,” he said. “Orbion is evolutionary – we’re focused on better manufacturing and a product that’s more reliable.