Space

Electric Propulsion for Space Travel

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Researchers at Robinson Research Institute along with partners from the University of Auckland and University of Canterbury are currently working to develop new electric propulsion thrusters for small satellites. Unlike current chemical propulsion systems which burn fuel to accelerate, electric propulsion thrusters are powered by solar cells, meaning that energy will be captured while in flight. The thrusters will use high temperature superconducting (HTS) technology, so the weight of the thruster will be significantly lighter compared with copper coils used in other technologies that generate electricity. HTS also enables the thruster to be significantly more efficient, generating high thrust and longer life performance.

Aiming to find out how far the thrusters can be scaled, the team began a five-year development programme funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), which will see the thruster go into space in 2025.

Wellington UniVentures’ Senior Commercialisation Manager, Nicole van der Laak has been working closely with the Robinson team over the last two years to construct the technology proposition and define the commercial development pathway to take the tech to market.

Features and benefits

High temperature superconducting (HTS) technology

Up to 97% reduction in magnet weight compared to copper magnets using HTS wire.

Stronger magnetic fields (>1T)

Strong magnetic fields improve the efficiency and thrust by up to 70% compared with current electric propulsion solutions.

 

Suitable for small satellites from 75-1000kg in mass

A lower mass thruster means there is more room for additional payloads increasing the returns on investment for small satellite operators.

High specific impulse (mileage)

The higher the specific impulse, the less propellant is needed to produce a given thrust for a given time.

 

Throttleable

Greater mission flexibility with throttleable electric propulsion.

Long life

Life of the thruster can extend mission times giving up to 3x the potential return on investment for a satellite mission.

Next steps

As the team continues to develop and test the thruster, there will be an upcoming investable opportunity as the project spins out and the technology is taken to market. We are currently seeking investment to scale up to commercial reality.

Nicole Van der Laak
Nicole van der Laak

Senior Commercialisation Manager/ ED Advisor

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