Airport security was not interested in the box containing the radical satellite thruster. Little did they know that the mechanical cube in their carry-on was a fully functional “space engine.” And when she
said it didn’t bother her.
That’s because there’s nothing remotely dangerous about Australian innovator Neumann Space’s radically new engine.
“Unless you throw it,” quips CEO Herve Astier.
Hydrazine is the traditional fuel used to launch satellites into orbit and maneuver spacecraft into place. It is also a highly flammable liquid and a toxic nerve gas.
Other engines use xenon gas. It is safe in itself. But it has to be liquefied to be useful. And that means bulky high-pressure vessels.
The Neumann Space engine is powered by a metal rod.
In this case molybdenum.
But recycled aluminum is also sufficient.
The thruster is a cross between an arc welder and a flash lamp. An electrical impulse creates a tiny spark from the pole. But that’s enough to give an orbital object a kick in the desired direction.
It’s easy. It’s reliable. It’s easy to make. And it only takes a day or two to assemble and install.
Once built, the engine can sit there – ready to go – until needed.
And it all means the little invention will give Australia’s space industry a boost.
The first examples of the drive are ready to go.
One is on board the Australian Space Agency’s SpIRIT satellite, due to be launched later this year. The 11.5kg technology demonstrator was assembled by Neumann Space’s neighbor Inovor Technologies in Adelaide’s Lot Fourtee space district.
Another is part of a Canberra-based Skycraft satellite undergoing final testing. Designed and built in Australia, this system is expected to ship to the United States mid-year.
Four more of the metal-powered, 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.
Demand just exploded.
The US Federal Communications Commission ruled last September that all low-orbit satellites must be safely deorbited within five years of the end of their useful lives. That’s a dramatic move up from the previous 25-year time frame.
“This is a game changer for us,” says Astier, “because our system is so small, so fuel efficient, so reliable, not to mention easy to install and use.”
What doesn’t kill you…
Last year, the Australian government asked Neumann Space to present its technology at the Colorado Springs Space Symposium.
“Two days before my scheduled departure, the team said, ‘Oh, we’ve finished testing on the first engine. You can take it with you if you want.
“Being able to show potential customers the original would be a huge benefit. But I had no papers. I had no clearances.”
And providing a passenger flight with a fully fueled engine (that just needed to be plugged in) seemed a bit…radical.
A late-night phone call to Enrico Palermo, head of Australia’s space agency, resulted in the signed papers being delivered by 10am the next day.
“But I didn’t want to put the engine in general luggage. Obviously all of our intellectual property is in this one thing,” Astier says.
So that evening he went to Adelaide Airport to make sure the device got through security before his flight the next day.
But they let him through without hesitation.
“I put it on the x-ray conveyor. I could see the guy looking at it, zooming in and out and changing all the parameters. Then he pushed a button and it went through!”
But Astier said he wanted to guarantee that any chance of drama was eliminated.
“So I asked if I could see a manager and told him what I had just x-rayed. I told them I didn’t want to be stopped in Sydney or the US.”
The security team ran it through the scanner again, this time with three of them watching.
“She said there were no organic compounds, it wasn’t a bomb, there were no sharp edges and I wouldn’t be able to kill anyone with it. So she waved me through!”
Since then he has made several trips.
“I’ve only been stopped once,” says Astier. “I told them it was a satellite component and they said ‘cool’ – and let me pass.”
… makes you stronger
The airline experience underscores what Neumann Space believes to be its competitive advantage.
They are easy and safe to install. “You don’t have to fly in a team of specialized engineers to get this thing ready,” says Astier.
They place minimal demands on the processing, space and weight limitations of a satellite.
And no link in their supply chain is particularly risky.
“This is a game changer for everyone,” adds Astier.
Conventional hydrazine costs about $220 per kilogram. But the additional investment required for its safe storage and handling is enormous.
Xenon gas is rare. It usually costs around $4500 per kilogram. But its main producers – Ukraine and Russia – are now at war. These are inflated prices at around $50,000 per kilogram.
Molybdnium costs about $135 per kilogram.
It does not need any special security conditions. It doesn’t need heating. Or pressure tank.
Which is why airport security didn’t bat an eyelid.
And once in space, the Neumann drive doesn’t need delicate handling.
“We just send a command that says fire,” says Astier. “So you don’t have to warm it up. You don’t have to regulate the pressure. And that leads to significant savings in space, weight and energy budget.”
Each satellite still has to power the drive’s capacitors for the spark-producing discharge. But it requires minimal support weight, footprint, communication bandwidth, and processing power to achieve the desired result.
That simplicity is priceless in space, he adds. “We have competitors that sometimes perform better just by looking at the numbers, but they’re so difficult to operate.”