28 Dec Space: Accion Systems

A New Propulsion System from Accion Systems

Acccion Systems's propulsion system under testing on a magnetically levitating stand. Credit: Accion Systems
Accion Systems's propulsion system under testing on a magnetically levitating stand. Credit: Accion Systems
  A new space startup founded in 2013 in Boston called Accion (pronounced "ax-see-yon") Systems has patented an ion beam technology to propel small satellites. As government-funded large launches give away to commercial small satellite launchers such as Firefly Space Systems, there's a growing need to ensure small satellites have efficient propulsion system requiring little fuel to produce enough thrust. Without propulsion, a satellite has a very limited lifetime -- possibly as shortly as a few weeks. As in conventional ion engines, Accion's propulsion system produces thrust using electric fields to accelerate ions. However, the difference lies in how the ions are produced. Accion uses ionic liquid propellant which is a non-toxic liquid salt stored in passive plastic tanks. Ions leave thruster chips through small holes in grids over each chip and propel spacecraft in the opposite direction. This removes big ionization chambers, pressurized tanks, bulky valves, and external cathodes for neutralization. There are several major advantages with the low-cost hands-off manufacturing process being most touted as significant:  
  • It's modular and can be used in satellites ranging between 2 to 200 kg.
  • It's flexible since thruster chips can be placed anywhere on a satellite, in any number.
  • It's more efficient since it has higher thrust-to-mass and higher thrust-to-volume.
  • It's much less costly since low-cost automated batch manufacturing is used. In one run, they can make 44 thruster chips.
  Accion's major competitor in the realm of small satellite propulsion systems is Busek which has a lead of nearly 30 years more experience. However, Accion has said its design ensures a longer operational lifetime than Busek's equivalent.

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27 Jun Space: Made in Space

Introduction to Made in Space

The first tool printed in space was by Made in Space in partnership with NASA and Lowe's in June 2016. Credit: NASA
The first tool printed in space was by Made in Space in partnership with NASA and Lowe's in June 2016. Credit: NASA
What company is there that prints 3D objects in outer space? The company is Made in Space. Formed by entrepreneurs Aaron Kemmer (CEO), Jason Dunn (CTO) and Mike Chen (CSO) in 2010 to tackle Singularity University's challenge of creating a project that would affect 1 billion people, Made in Space has grown to be an innovative new space company focused on additive manufacturing -- more commonly known as 3D printing -- in space attracting quite a following (and funding). In the last quarter of 2014, the world's first zero-gravity 3D printer built by Made in Space was launched to, installed on, and operated with no hitch on the International Space Station. In June this year [2016], the first tool ever manufactured in space, a wrench branded with toolmaker name Kobalt, was 3D printed on the ISS at its Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) thanks to Made in Space, which built the AMF, and home improvement giant Lowe's. The entrepreneurs, innovators, and researchers at MIS have developed several devices including tactical 3D printing (TAC3D), extended structure additive manufacturing machine (ESAMM), and vacuum additive manufacturing (VAM). The full extent of what each piece of tech entails is interesting but delves deep into the technicalities so let's take a look instead at the exciting space projects on the horizon for them.
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28 Sep Space: Firefly Space Systems, A Texas Rocket Company

Introduction to Firefly Space Systems

 Firefly Space Systems will generate ~$70 million by 2020 assuming 8 launches for $8 million each after the initial ~$5 million NASA contract. The impact on the number of people is hard to estimate given the diverse range of services small satellites can provide.
Firefly Space Systems will generate ~$70 million by 2020 assuming 8 launches for $8 million each after the initial ~$5 million NASA contract. The impact on the number of people is hard to estimate given the diverse range of services small satellites can provide.
Firefly Space Systems is a new space company based north of Austin, Texas. At least 25 companies have announced plans to build rockets to meet the growing demand for small-satellite launches since 2014, but Firefly Space Systems does not plan to blend into that pack. Thomas Markusic, Firefly Space Systems chief executive, said, "Think of this as the Model T of rockets, a simple widely used vehicle for getting from point to point, or in this case getting to space." “When you are riding as a secondary payload on a large launch vehicle, you sometimes have to wait a couple of years and you are subject to the technical specifications of that launch,” said Amir Blachman, Space Angels Network managing director in Los Angeles. “Whereas if you can pay to get a custom launch for a smaller payload, you can tailor the timing and all the other elements of the mission to your specific needs.” Markusic, a propulsion engineer who worked at NASA, the U.S. Air Force, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin before founding Firefly, plans to build a family of simple expendable rockets offering dedicated rides for small satellites (under 1000 kilograms) to low earth orbit (LEO). Markusic left his job as Virgin Galactic’s vice president for propulsion in December 2013 to found Firefly because he saw a dearth of launch options for the burgeoning small-satellite market. Firefly’s initial launch vehicle, Firefly Alpha, is designed to send 400 kilogram payloads into low Earth orbit or 200 kilograms into sun-synchronous orbit. The cost of a full vehicle to LEO is currently set at $8 million, and includes features that typically cost extra, such as the separation system and a full re-ride guarantee. Customers will not have to insure the launch, because if the first fails the second ride is on Firefly. Satellites will still need insurance for their own performance. Other launch options include delivering a 120-kilogram payload to a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit for $4.95 million, and orbiting 3U CubeSats for about $240,000. In October [2015], NASA announced the award of fixed-price contracts to Firefly, Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic of Long Beach, California, to provide dedicated rides into orbit for the CubeSats NASA transports under its Cubesat Launch Initiative. CubeSats are small cube-shaped satellites typically sized 10 by 10 by 11.35 centimeters and has a mass of no more than 1.33 kilograms. NASA plans to pay Firefly $5.5 million, Virgin Galactic $4.7 million and Rocket Lab $6.95 million for launches scheduled to occur by April 2018. PJ King, cofounder and COO of Firefly, said the initial target is to field about four vehicles in the first year. If business goes well, King said the number of launches the first year could be up to seven. Assuming continued success, the goal for year two is to produce about 12 vehicles.
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04 Oct Space: Skybox Imaging

[caption id="attachment_237" align="alignleft" width="300"]Skybox Imaging satellites A Silicon Valley startup plans to launch a fleet of high-resolution and cheap imaging satellites. Image: Jeff Lysgaard[/caption] Want to See the Full Earth in High Resolution? Who doesn't want to see real-time high-resolution images of our planet? If you have used a service such as Google Earth, you may have been awed by its beautiful depiction of almost any region on our planet. You may even think that the images are real-time or at most just a few days old. Alas, that is not true. Weather satellites which does provide real-time data (updated every few hours) of the entire Earth operates at what's known as geosynchronous orbits (36,000 km from the Earth) and from that distance, can't offer high resolution pictures. Even a global imaging satellite such as NASA's MODIS Terra satellite provides only medium resolution (about 250 meters per pixel). The high-resolution images of Earth beautiful to us and more importantly, useful for government and industry to analyze global shipping, oil spills, crop irrigation, etc., are covered by closer satellites in low earth orbit (several hundred kilometers from the Earth) operated by companies such as GeoEye or DigitalGlobe. Unfortunately, those high-resolution satellites only see small potions of the Earth so there is are complicated algorithms at Google and other satellite image companies to update images with the newest ones and splice them together. Who is Skybox Imaging? Skybox Imaging is a high-resolution imaging and data company recently [June 2014] acquired by Google for $500 million. Starting from 2009 when four Stanford university students worked out of a cramped living room, they have grown into a multimillion dollar backed 125-person company in Silicon Valley with their own satellite manufacturing and operations facilities as well as data equipment and software to handle their satellite information. The company designs its own satellites and cameras and partners with others to build and launch them. Prior to their acquisition by Google, they have raised a total of $91 million in three rounds of financing from venture capital companies. Interested in more of my posts and other writings outside of Impact Hound? Follow me on Twitter: @shenge86
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06 Aug Space: Small Satellite Launchers

Growth of Small Satellite Launchers [caption id="attachment_163" align="alignleft" width="300"]3 CubeSats deployed from the ISS in 2013. There is a growing small satellite industry. 3 CubeSats deployed from the ISS in 2013. There is a growing small satellite market. Consider reading Small Satellites: Past., Present, and Future for more information. Photo: NASA[/caption] Universities, government agencies, and small companies are building more and more small satellites. For years, small satellite companies had no choice but to piggyback on larger payloads as rides to space. These companies have to pay exorbitant fees and often have to wait for years before their satellites or their customers' satellites can be launched. However, as satellites grow ever more sophisticated and as electronic components become ever smaller and cheaper, new companies are forming focused on building a greater quantity of small satellites with rapid turnaround times. The small satellite market is projected to grow from $702.4 million in 2014 to $1887.1 million in 2019, a 21.8% growth rate. Yet, currently, no service exists to exclusively serve these small satellites by launching them at an affordable cost and in a timely fashion. What is a small satellite? A small satellite is a satellite less than or around 500 kilograms in mass. The small satellite market can be further divided into microsatellites, nanosatellites, and CubeSats. Microsatellites range from 10 to 100 kilograms and often work in a constellation to do the task previously completed by a solitary satellite. Nanosatellites range from 1 to 10 kilograms and can include both single and multiple-unit CubeSats as well as other spacecrafts of any form factor within the weight range. CubeSats are 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm cube satellites with a maximum mass of 1 kg. These have been mostly used for technology demonstration and education such as solar sails, space tethers, and inflatable antennas. Interested in more of my posts and other writings outside of Impact Hound? Follow me on Twitter: @shenge86
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15 Jul Space: Mars Sample Return by BoldlyGo Institute

[caption id="attachment_42" align="alignleft" width="300"]SCIM will journey to Mars and perform a high-speed atmospheric pass collecting Martian dust particles. With its precious cargo onboard, SCIM will return the samples to Earth for detailed analysis in advanced technology laboratories. Source: BoldlyGo Institute In 2020, SCIM will embark on a two year journey to Mars to perform a high-speed atmospheric pass collecting tiny dust particles. SCIM will take another half year to return the samples to Earth for detailed analysis. Source: BoldlyGo Institute[/caption]

A nonprofit corporation called BoldlyGo Institute (BGI) is developing a Mars Sample Return mission called the Sample Collection to Investigate Mars (SCIM) which will return the first samples of Martian materials back to Earth. The project is at the preliminary design stage and the goal is ambitious. With a launch date of July 26, 2020, SCIM will journey through space for two years. When it reaches Mars, it will swoop down and collect the dust particles from the Martian atmosphere below 40 km. The SCIM has an aerodynamic aeroshell allowing it to rapidly pass through the atmosphere without being captured by Mars's gravity. The sample capture mechanism for the Mars Sample Return Mission is similar to the successful collection system for the Stardust mission which used aerogel to capture dust particles. After collecting thousands of particles, the spacecraft will leave Mars on August 3, 2022 and return directly to Earth by February 1, 2023 where the sterilized samples will descend by parachutes to the ground.

Sample return offers advantages over the current and past robotic missions to Mars where samples have been only analyzed on Mars. Earth-based lab instruments are much more sophisticated than what can be packed into a Mars rover or lander allowing much greater detailed analysis. Furthermore, there is no time limit for analysis; as more advanced instruments are developed, they can be applied on curated samples. Lastly and perhaps speaking most intriguingly of BoldlyGo Institute's philosophy, participation can involve hundreds of scientists and students--many of whom may not be traditionally involved in the Mars science community. Interested in more of my posts and other writings outside of Impact Hound? Follow me on Twitter: @shenge86
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09 Jul Space: Mechanical Launch Vehicle by HyperV

SlingatronA company called HyperV Technologies Corporation based in Chantilly, Virgina, USA, is working on a mechanical launch vehicle called the Slingatron. The Slingatron is a mechanical hypervelocity mass accelerator which can be used to launch objects (also called payloads) into Earth orbit at a significantly lower cost than what's done today. Just like the early railroads which opened up remote areas here on Earth, the Slingatron mechanical launch vehicle can open up the next frontier, i.e. space. Launching into low earth orbit (LEO) requires accelerating a payload to 7.6 km/sec. Traditional approaches use rocket fuel which is terribly inefficient leading to only about 4% of the rocket mass for payload while the other 96% is for rocket fuel and giant propellant tanks. Slingatron negates the need for rocket fuel or fuel tanks. The Slingatron does this by a mechanical acceleration approach much like a classical sling. In the traditional case, a man twirls the sling above his head in an outward spiral accelerating the stone. In the Slingatron case, a mechanical motor does the same thing while the payload is on an outwardly spiraling railroad track that is mounted to the mechanical motor. Interested in more of my posts and other writings outside of Impact Hound? Follow me on Twitter: @shenge86
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