Airport security wasn’t interested in the box which contained the radical satellite thruster. They didn’t know the mechanical cube in carry-on luggage was a fully functional “space thruster.” And when they were told, it didn’t bother them.
That’s because nothing about Australian innovator Neumann Space’s radical new engine is even remotely dangerous.
“Unless you throw it,” quips CEO Herve Astier.
Hydrazine is the traditional fuel used to nudge satellites into orbit and manoeuvre spacecraft into place. It’s also a highly flammable liquid and a toxic nerve agent.
Other engines use the likes of Xenon gas. It’s safe in itself. But it must be liquefied to be useful. And that means bulky, high-pressure containers.
Neumann Space’s thruster is powered by a metal rod.
Molybdenum, in this case.
But even recycled aluminium will do.
The thruster is a hybrid between an arc welder and a flashbulb. An electrical pulse generates a tiny spark from the rod. But that’s enough to give an orbital object a kick in the desired direction.
It’s simple. It’s reliable. It’s easy to manufacture. And it takes just a day or two to assemble and install.
Once built, the engine can sit there – ready to go – until needed.
And all that means the little invention is set to give the Australian space industry a boost.
The first examples of the drive are ready to go.
One is aboard the Australian Space Agency‘s SpIRIT satellite, scheduled for launch later this year. The 11.5kg technology demonstrator has been assembled by Neumann Space’s neighbour at Adelaide’s Lot Fourteen space precinct, Inovor Technologies.
Another is part of a Canberra-based Skycraft satellite undergoing final testing. This Australian-designed and built system will be shipped to the US with an intended launch in the middle of the year.
Four more of the metal-fuelled, electric-powered thrusters are in the pipeline. And Astier believes a successful demonstration flight will open “the floodgates” to orders from international operators desperate for efficient, reliable orbital propulsion.
Also in Cosmos: Another radical satellite thruster
Demand has just exploded.
The US Federal Communication Commission last September ruled that all low-orbit satellites must safely deorbit within five years of the end of their useful lives. That’s a dramatic step up from the previous 25-year timeframe.
“That’s a game changer for us,” Astier says, “because our system is so small, so fuel efficient, so reliable, not to mention simple to install and use”.
Last year, the Australian Government asked Neumann Space to promote its technology at the Colorado Springs Space Symposium.
“Two days before I was due to fly out, the team said, ‘oh, we finished testing on the first engine. You can take it with you if you want’.
“Having the actual thing to show potential customers would be a huge advantage. But I didn’t have any paperwork. I didn’t have any clearances.”
And putting a fully fuelled thruster engine (it only needed to be plugged in) on a passenger flight seemed somewhat … radical.
A late-night phone call to Australian Space Agency chief Enrico Palermo resulted in the signed documentation being delivered by 10am the following day.
“But I didn’t want to put the thruster into general luggage. Obviously, all our intellectual property is in that one thing,” Astier says.
So, that evening, he went to Adelaide Airport to ensure the device would get through security before his flight the next day.
But they let him through without question.
“I put it on the X-ray conveyor belt. I could see the guy looking at it, zooming in and out, changing all the parameters. Then he pressed a button, and it passed through!”
But Astier said he wanted to guarantee any chance of drama had been eliminated.
“So I asked if I could see a manager and told them what I’d just put through their X-ray. I told them I didn’t want to get stopped in Sydney or the US.”
The security team again put it through the scanner, this time with three of them looking on.
“She said there were no organic compounds, it was not a bomb, there were no sharp edges, and I wasn’t going to be able to kill anyone with it. So she waved me through!”
He’s made several trips since.
“I’ve only been stopped once, “Astier says. “I told them it was a satellite component, and they said ‘cool’ – and let me pass”.
The airline experience emphasises what Neumann Space believes to be its competitive edge.
They’re simple and safe to install. “You don’t have to fly in a team of specialist engineers to get the thing ready for launch,” says Astier.
They place minimal demand on a satellite’s processing, space and weight limitations.
And no link in their supply chain is especially risky.
“That’s a game changer for everybody,” Astier adds.
Traditional hydrazine costs about $220 per kilogram. But the extra investment needed for its safe storage and handling is enormous.
Xenon gas is rare. It usually costs about $4500 per kilogram. But its primary producers – Ukraine and Russia – are now at war. That’s inflated prices to about $50,000 per kilogram.
Molybdnium costs about $135 per kilogram.
It doesn’t need special safety conditions. It doesn’t require heating. Or pressurised containers.
Which is why airport security didn’t bat an eye.
And, once in space, the Neumann drive needs no delicate treatment.
“We just send a command that says fire,” says Astier. “So you don’t need to warm it up. You don’t have to regulate the pressure. And that translates to significant savings when it comes to space, weight and energy budgets.”
Any satellite must still feed the drive’s capacitors with electricity for the spark-generating discharge. But it needs minimal supporting weight, space, communications bandwidth and processing power to produce the desired result.
Such simplicity is priceless in space, he adds. “We have competitors that sometimes have better performance if you look only at the numbers, but they are so difficult to operate.”