Taking Satellite Propulsion from Fabergé Eggs to Mass Production: Interview with Brad King of Orbion Space Technology

by Bill Ostrove, Space Systems Analyst, Forecast International.

Orbion Space Technology’s Hall effect thrusters.

Orbion Space Technology is developing the Aurora propulsion system to serve the growing small satellite market. Orbion is relying on tried-and-true Hall effect propulsion technology as the basis for its Aurora system. Instead of developing a system based on entirely new technology, Orbion is working to mass produce systems based on proven technology.

Forecast International had an opportunity to speak with Brad King, CEO of Orbion. Brad holds a PhD in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan; has served on numerous NASA, U.S. Department of Defense, and Intelligence Community advisory panels; and has published more than 100 papers on space propulsion systems. He is a past recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President George W. Bush “for innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology, and for the exceptional potential to shape the future.” In 2002, Brad founded Aerophysics Inc. This closely held company has delivered intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance solutions to government customers from multiple agencies. He is currently the principal investigator on three satellite missions.

Dr. Brad King Orbion Space Technology CEO

Forecast International:  Can you please explain, in layperson’s terms, how your technology works?

Brad King:  The Orbion Aurora propulsion system is a rocket engine that is used by spacecraft to maneuver once they are in space, meaning that it expels an exhaust stream of ionized gas that pushes a satellite in the opposite direction.  Aurora is in the class of thrusters known as “electric propulsion.”  This means that Aurora does not burn fuel to create the stream of gas, but instead collects electrical energy from solar panels and then uses this energy to accelerate a chemically inert propellant via electromagnetic forces.  The Aurora thruster, like many other electric thrusters, enjoys incredibly high fuel efficiency, which is quantified by a metric known as specific impulse.  A spacecraft using Aurora can do a lot of “thrusting” using a very small mass of propellant.  This is important since spacecraft propellant is a consumable resource: once a spacecraft exhausts all of its propellant, it is no longer capable of controlling its orbit (there are no gas stations in space).  Because it is expensive to launch anything into space (around $50,000/kg), it is obviously advantageous to minimize the amount of propellant mass that must be carried by a spacecraft.

FI:  How is Orbion’s system different from other propulsion systems being developed for smallsats, like Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AF-M15E, SSTL’s butane system, Busek’s Hall effect thrusters, and Accion’s TILE system?

King:  Aurora is an electric propulsion system of the Hall effect type.  We chose this because Hall effect technology has proven itself over the past two decades to be the highest performing, most reliable satellite propulsion solution in the industry.  Electric propulsion in broad terms – often known by pseudonyms like ion propulsion or plasma propulsion – sounds like a new field, but, in fact, has been the subject of extensive research and development for more than 50 years by hundreds of people and dozens of worldwide laboratories.  Just about every conceivable configuration of plasma and ion accelerator utilizing exotic liquids, metals, and gases for propellant has been proposed as a thruster and investigated in a laboratory at some time in recent history.

Out of all this activity, the Hall effect thruster has endured and reinforced its position as the best overall technology as evidenced by its widespread adoption in the high-stakes commercial geostationary satellite market. In 2000, there were 12 commercial geocomm satellites launched with electric propulsion, with two of those having Hall effect thrusters (15% share); in 2016, there were 13 satellites launched with electric propulsion, including nine with Hall effect thrusters (70% share).  Even more recently, in 2017, one of the last major contractors that historically used another technology announced development of a geostationary communications satellite relying on Hall effect thrusters in place of their traditional technology – so Hall effect technology is likely moving towards a 100 percent market share among electric satellites.  Hall effect thrusters are proven, reliable, and well understood.

FI: Why did you pick Hall effect technology for the Aurora system?

King:  The NewSpace market does not need a better thruster technology.  There are a number of new devices emerging that, even if they perform exactly as planned, will have overall performance metrics pretty much the same as a Hall effect thruster.  The slim, and possibly nonexistent, performance gains of the latest laboratory gadgets do not justify the risk and expense of development simply to offer something “different.”  Instead, we feel the NewSpace market needs a better manufacturing technology and philosophy that can bring the Hall thruster’s high performance and reliability to cost-conscious NewSpace customers building small satellites.

Aurora was designed from the ground up to be an affordable, reliable, mass-producible product.  We didn’t just design a new thruster; we instead designed an entirely new process.  The Aurora system is manufactured using modern automation, with robots and automated test facilities replacing small teams of lab technicians in white coats.  Our manufacturing process can produce one to two units per run, or 1,000 units per run – all of them enjoying the same low price and high reliability.  We feel that this will be disruptive to the historical practice of hand building propulsion systems like Fabergé eggs.

FI:  Many small satellites go into orbit with no propulsion at all. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a propulsion system on a small satellite?

King:  There are essentially three ways that an onboard propulsion system can add value to a small satellite mission: (1) by compensating for atmospheric drag, propulsion can extend the on-orbit lifetime of a satellite and thereby reduce the costs associated with launching replacement vehicles; (2) because each satellite can maneuver to a predefined orbital location, a constellation of satellites can be launched en masse on a single large launcher, and hence take advantage of low-dollar-per-kilogram-to-orbit costs, and then each satellite can deploy to optimal orbit locations – effectively covering the globe rather than being limited to a single orbital plane; and (3) a propulsion system with high enough fuel efficiency (like a Hall effect system) can enable extremely low orbit altitudes that allow small satellites to match the performance of larger, higher-flying counterparts – for instance, a dishwasher-size satellite at 250 km with a 45-cm-diameter telescope can take images with the same quality as a 1-m-diameter telescope on a pickup truck-sized satellite at 600 km.

For cubesat-class vehicles (sub-20 kg), it is indeed questionable whether a propulsion system adds enough value to offset the risk and complexity.  Propulsion technologies for these smallest vehicles are largely unproven and immature.  The few products that have flown in space make up a number of missions that can be counted on one hand.  The various failure modes and long-term spacecraft interaction effects are not well known.  This type of information requires statistics, and statistics require a lot of datapoints to be meaningful.  For cubesat-class missions, I would recommend that propulsion should be included if it is an enabling technology, meaning the business case doesn’t close without propulsion on board.  It pains me to say this because, at heart, I am a laboratory rocket scientist, and there’s nothing I love more than to see a new gadget in space.  But there is both a risk and a cost associated with integrating an immature component on a satellite, and, so far, there is not enough data to quantify the risk in a way that leads to an informed calculus of the risk-benefit ratio.

For satellites larger than about 50 kg, the propulsion technologies available are more mature so that operators can make an informed decision on risk-benefit and hence consider incorporating propulsion as an enhancing technology, rather than only if it is an enabling technology.  At Orbion, we obviously feel that the Hall effect thruster is a winner in this category, but there are traditional chemical choices in the marketplace as well that have significant reliability and performance data available.  If an operator can put a number on the enhanced value enabled by onboard propulsion, then it is possible to conduct an informed risk-benefit analysis and determine whether it makes sense for his or her spacecraft architecture.  As the costs of propulsion systems come down and the value of space-based data goes up, the value multiplier afforded by onboard propulsion will be significant.

FI: That leads to the next group of questions. I’d like to talk a bit about what market segments you are targeting. The space market is diverse, with satellites of different sizes, operators, and missions. What size satellites are you targeting?

King:  We had to make a decision up front on what size class of satellite we would target.  As might be expected, when it comes to propulsion technologies, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach.  For instance, our chosen Hall effect technology cannot be scaled down small enough to work on sub-20-kg satellites because of some very hard limitations with plasma physics.  Conversely, the most promising cubesat-class technologies don’t have a credible path to larger satellites – bolting together a dozen units of an immature technology to meet the thrust demands of a larger satellite only multiplies the risk.  At Orbion, we have chosen to first target the 100-kg-class satellites (meaning anywhere between 50 kg and 300 kg), while working hard on the R&D front to bring a cubesat-class propulsion product to market in the coming years.

FI: And what mission uses are you targeting?

King:  So far, we have identified at least two NewSpace market applications that we feel can significantly benefit from our Aurora technology.  First is the Earth observation market.  The goal of this market is, of course, to image features on the Earth’s surface with as much detail as possible, while using the smallest satellite possible.  Visible imagers are governed by the laws of physical optics:  The quality of an image is proportional to the size of the telescope divided by the distance to the target.  So, if you want to use a small telescope, then you would clearly like to get as close to the target as possible to record images competitive with larger satellites.  The image quality of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites, such as Iceye and Capella, is not directly related to the distance between imager and target; however, SAR imagers have challenging power requirements: The electrical power required to create the transmitted radar signal  is inversely proportional to the target distance to the fourth power, so getting closer to the target can dramatically reduce the satellite’s need for solar panels and batteries – again, motivating a need for extremely low orbits.  Our Aurora system shows the impressive ability to maintain a 100-kg imaging satellite in a very low 250-km orbit for more than five years.  This is a game-changing capability for the small satellite imaging market.

The second market we are addressing is the communications segment.  This segment, sometimes referred to as the “Mega-LEO” market because of the need for hundreds or thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit, will without doubt require onboard propulsion.  Most Mega-LEO deployment scenarios involve launch injection of dozens or hundreds of satellites at a time into 600- to 800-km orbits, after which onboard thrusters then raise each vehicle into a specific 1,200-km orbit.  Because of the tyranny of Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation, this type of maneuver simply isn’t feasible with a traditional chemical propulsion system, and thus Hall effect thrusters are required.  Mega-LEO architectures will require dozens or hundreds of thrusters to be produced per year at low cost with high reliability, dovetailing precisely with the philosophy of the Orbion Aurora system.

FI:  Do you have any firm contracts with customers?

King:  We are working with a number of customers, both commercial and government, that are incorporating Orbion’s product on their upcoming vehicles.

FI:  I see that you won $500,000 at an Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition in November 2017. Can you tell me a bit about Accelerate Michigan?

King:  The Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition (AMIC) is the Midwest’s largest startup and investor expo.  Approximately 200 companies were invited to apply, and from this, 36 were chosen to take part in the day-long event.  The field of 36 was then whittled down to 10 through panel interviews and pitch events conducted by teams of venture capitalists, then subsequently to a single Grand Prize winner, which we were fortunate to earn.  The judging criteria were based on entrants’ business plans, quality of team, and growth potential, among others.  The $500,000 Grand Prize was accompanied by in-kind awards totaling more than $50,000.  This was a great and unexpected windfall for Orbion, and we’re honored by the recognition.

FI:  What will you do with the money from Accelerate Michigan?

King:  The funds are being used to increase our engineering staff and accelerate our product development.

FI:  Do you have any other investors or sources of funding outside of Accelerate Michigan?

King:  The Accelerate Michigan win was unplanned and unexpected.  In addition and prior to Accelerate Michigan, Orbion closed a strong Series Seed priced round in the summer of 2017 from experienced investors in Silicon Valley, Michigan, and the broader Midwest.  Resulting partly from the exposure and connections made at the Accelerate Michigan event, we have benefitted from unexpected interim investments as well, setting us up with a good runway.

FI:  Do you produce everything in house, or do you rely on suppliers?

King:  We are largely vertical, producing the majority of our components in house.  However, we do rely on suppliers for certain items.

FI:  Where do you see yourself in the satellite/spacecraft supply chain?

King:  The small satellite market is exploding largely because it can exploit technologies developed for larger terrestrial markets.  The terrestrial demand for smartphones, tablets, smart cars, and drones has resulted in a prolific supply of small computer chips, radios, GPS receivers, cameras, batteries, etc.  Small satellite operators can buy these cheap components and assemble satellites from them at incredibly low cost.  However, there are two key technologies required by spacecraft that have no terrestrial counterpart: propulsion and attitude control.  I have yet to see an iPhone with a micro-rocket engine or reaction wheels on board, and so specialty companies like Orbion need to step into this gap.  The challenge is that we must produce these specialty space-only components in the same manner and for similar cost as the other components that make up the satellite.  For instance, it is possible to build a cubesat in your garage for $100,000 in parts.  A builder of such a satellite is certainly not going to pay $300,000 for a thruster.

We see Orbion as a pioneer in the field of mass-produced specialty spacecraft components, such as onboard propulsion systems.  The challenge is that “mass” in the context of even the most optimistic NewSpace projections means hundreds of units per year – not exactly iPhone-scale manufacturing, but well beyond Fabergé eggs.  We have a strategy, design, and facility in place that will enable us to produce components at this rate while retaining the incredibly high reliability demanded by serious space customers.  We are not in the business of designing products for bargain hunters, but instead for serious cost-conscious satellite owner-operators who need the right mix of affordability and reliability to bring their NewSpace architecture online.

Please feel free to use this content with Forecast International and analyst attributions, along with a link to the article. Contact Ray Peterson at +1 (203) 426-0800 or via email at ray.peterson@forecast1.com for additional analysis.

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