A tiny Australian-made, metal-fuelled thruster is being evaluated by the US Space Force which believe it provides opportunities to enable its satellites to undertake a higher intensity of mobile operations.
South Australian-based Neumann Space, and Colorado-based CisLunar Industries, have been tasked to develop their space-junk fuel recycling concept to provide the US military with the option of refuelling low-earth satellites to keep them operational longer.
This would enable Space Force to move spacecraft from orbit to orbit without the concern that each and every time a thruster is fired, it is emptying the fuel tank and bringing the demise of that asset’s usefulness ever closer.
The $2.5 million project represents the first commercial sales and export of the radical new drive. It also gives Neumann Space a foot in the door in this increasingly critical space operations arena. In recent months, China and Russia have demonstrated new capabilities in orbital manoeuvre and deployable vehicle operations.
“As the space domain becomes more contested, Space Force has a need to be able to manoeuvre without regret,” says CisLunar Industries’ CEO Gary Calnan.
CisLunar, Astroscale US and Colorado State University are tasked with demonstrating the practicality of creating a fuel cycle for Neuman Space’s cathodic arc thruster.
Neumann Space’s CEO, Herve Astier, says the drive has already proven it can use a variety of in-space metals as fuel. The most common is steel and aluminium.
And the fact that these heavy materials have been discarded after the average $4 thousand per kilo cost of putting them into orbit makes re-using these metals more attractive.
“Our company’s mission is to enable the sustainable economic development of space, and we are proud that our propulsion system will play a role in this project,” says Neumann Space’s CEO Herve Astier. “
CisLunar’s Calnan says the metal-power drive can be fuelled by space junk to retrieve more space junk, which can be smelted in orbital foundries to become more fuel for metal-powered drives aboard customer spacecraft.
“With the Space Force’s foresight to invest in our combined capabilities, what we are creating now lays the foundation for a full-scale industrial economy in space.”