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.

[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

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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