Plasma drive thrusters to power defense department's satellite mesh

Shrinking technologies and space-aged propulsion systems are power a new generation of tiny satellites.

Plasma propulsion engines for DARPA’s next generation of nanosatellites

A developer of space-age propulsion systems for a new wave of small satellites is getting ready for an important production run. Orbion Space Technology, whose Hall-effect thrusters may soon be a key component of inexpensive small nanosatellites, will with a Blue Canyon Technologies (BCT), a developer of space technology, to manufacturing satellites for DARPA's Blackjack satellite constellation program.

The purpose of the Blackjack satellite program is to explore the potential of an inexpensive geosynchronous satellite mesh made of nano satellites to replace current positioning satellites, which are considered highly vulnerable to attach.

National Security Space (NSS) assets, critical to U.S. warfighting capabilities, traditionally reside in geosynchronous orbit to deliver persistent overhead access to any point on the globe. In the increasingly contested space environment, these exquisite, costly, and monolithic systems have become vulnerable targets that would take years to replace if degraded or destroyed. DARPA's Blackjack program aims to develop and demonstrate the critical elements for a global high-speed network in low Earth orbit (LEO) that provides the Department of Defense with highly connected, resilient, and persistent coverage.

Key components of the low Earth orbit system are size and cost. The launch costs for each satellite will be kept under $6 million, a fraction of what traditional satellite systems cost. A key feature in keeping costs low is the size of the systems, which can be as small as a basketball. 

As mobile computing has shrunk sensors and electronic components while driving costs, down, and in an age of privatized space travel, small, inexpensive satellites are now a reality. But propulsion of satellites in space, where they will have to adjust their position to maintain an appropriate orbit, continues to present challenges. That's where Orbion comes in. 

"DARPA's goal with Blackjack is to capitalize on commercial-sector space advances and use them for military utility," explains Brad King, CEO, Orbion Space Technologies. "Orbion's philosophy is to offer propulsion systems that are priced for commercial customers, but that retain the high-reliability required by government users, and this is a perfect fit for Blackjack. We're excited to play a vital role in this program. Our mass manufacturing technique will offer economies of scale previously unavailable."

As I've written, Orbion has developed a technology that may prove to be a crucial component of an emerging New Space industry, the first-ever Hall-effect plasma thrusters for small satellites, dubbed the Aurora system. Hall-effect plasma thrusters are a type of ion drive in which a propellant is accelerated by an electric field. The technology has been around since the 1960s, and Hall-effect thrusters were in use on Soviet satellites between 1972 and 1990. 

What's new is the size of the thrusters, as well as the size of the satellites they power, which are variously dubbed smallsats, microsatellites, or nanosatellites. As components and sensing technology has gotten smaller, and with the diversity of computing and sensing components available off-the-shelf, this new breed of satellite is cheap to build and lightweight, further reducing payload costs. That's opening up the possibility of launching communications and satellite arrays to companies and organizations that have never had that option.

The DARPA contract, awarded in June, gives Blue Canyon a $14.1 million to begin work on the first 4 satellites for the Blackjack program, which will be based on Blue Canyon's X-SAT microsatellite bus. Orbion will provide onboard electric propulsion for the spacecraft with the Orbion Aurora Hall-effect thruster system for small satellites built and manufactured in the United States. 

Following this round of production, DARPA has an option to buy up to 20 Blue Canyon satellites for a total of $99.4 million, so the stakes are high for both companies.