Accion Systems is developing an electric propulsion system for small satellites. As the number of small satellites built and launched increases each year, Accion sees a growing opportunity for propulsion systems to guide those spacecraft once they reach orbit around Earth.
Forecast International recently had an opportunity to speak with Natalya Bailey, CEO of Accion Systems. Below are her responses to our questions about Accion’s technology and processes, and the market for small satellites and propulsion systems.
Please explain in layman’s terms how your technology works.
Accion Systems develops advanced satellite propulsion systems for the space industry. Satellites have gotten smaller, but propulsion systems haven’t. Accion’s technology [known as the TILE system] is based on electrospray propulsion technology that can be made to work at a far smaller scale than previous ion engines. It is a dime-sized rocket engine which contains a propellant of charged particles that accelerate to enormous speeds in order to create thrust. This allows satellites that use Accion’s technology to reposition themselves, move to a different orbit with great efficiency, and even extend the life of the overall mission. Another advantage of Accion’s technology is that it is cheaper and easier to manufacture these thrusters in large numbers.
How is Accion’s propulsion system different from other systems currently being developed, like Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AF-M315E propellant system and SSTL’s butane system?
Manufacturing/Design: TILE was designed with high-volume, high-reliability production in mind.
Modularity: TILE is designed to be modular — a satellite can use just one TILE or can employ up to nine TILEs in tandem, depending on the mission requirements.
Specific Impulse: Additionally, as an electric propulsion system, TILE has a significantly higher specific impulse (Isp), which is a measure of how efficiently a propulsion system uses its propellant. TILE’s Isp is 1,500 seconds, compared ~250 seconds and ~80 seconds for the other two systems identified, respectively.
Volume/Mass: TILE does not employ the use of pressurized tanks or valves to store propellant and feed it into the system — it uses an unpressurized, passive feed system. The other two propulsion systems require the use of pressurized propellant tanks and valves, which add mass and complexity to their systems.
How did the founders of the company get involved with this project?
We [co-founders Natalya Bailey and Louis Perna] were researching and developing a new, miniaturized form of ion propulsion technology at MIT’s Space Propulsion Lab.
Why did you decide to bring it to market?
While at MIT, Louis and I received unsolicited requests for access to our technology — in the form of product order inquiries and requests to license the underlying IP [intellectual property]. We concluded that the best way to meet this demand was to create a company to commercialize and distribute our technology.
What is the process of commercializing technology developed at MIT?
Students that develop technologies at MIT work with the MIT Technology Licensing Office (TLO) if they want to commercialize the technology and/or spin out a company focused on using that technology. The TLO fosters commercial investment in and licensing of inventions and discoveries flowing from the research at MIT.
Accion Systems has successfully closed both seed and Series A funding rounds. But other companies, like Firefly – which is now auctioning off its assets – have had a more difficult time. Do you have any advice for other space companies looking to raise funds?
Fundraising is a constant aspect of my job as a CEO of a young company. I received some advice previously that has been key to our investment success for Accion. These four criteria serve as the basis for our interactions with investors, and would be my advice to others. Be able to clearly demonstrate and communicate the following: opportunity (what is the size of the market and what is exciting?), context (how do you solve the problem, what IP do you bring?), team (having an existing working relationship with the co-founder helped), and deal (know what you’re looking for). Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for help – mentors can be extremely valuable.
What is your manufacturing process?
Accion implements a mix of MEMS microfabrication techniques and conventional, mature manufacturing processes, which allows us to manufacture system components in batch runs for high-volume production — and also maintain a low-risk supply chain compared to traditional aerospace components.
Have you started production yet?
What is the target market for your technology?
Accion’s advanced satellite propulsion systems benefit everyone from traditional aerospace companies to government organizations to the rapidly emerging commercial space market.
Can you provide any insights for our readers into the SmallSat market and the satellite propulsion market?
A satellite with a mass under 500 kilograms is typically referred to as a small satellite. Demand for small satellites has grown dramatically over the past five years and is projected to continue growing.
There are a couple of key motivators behind this growing demand for small satellites — most importantly, cost. The advancement of a number of technology areas (consumer electronics, optical hardware, communications technology, etc.) has made it possible for smaller satellite platforms to host compelling payloads. Previously, for a satellite to generate enough value (i.e., revenue) to make up for the cost of manufacture and launch, its payload needed to be extremely large and hosted on platforms weighing 4,000+ kilograms.
Additionally, there are clear cases where frequency of data collection and delivery benefits end users and the companies that sell data from satellites. In the case of Earth Observation, having a “constellation” of small satellites continuously monitoring the same area — or monitoring a wider range of areas — can offer considerable benefits over using just one or two larger satellites.
Space propulsion generally breaks down into chemical and electric propulsion systems — chemical propulsion systems expel or combust pressurized gas to create thrust, and electric propulsion systems generate and exhaust ions to generate thrust.
A large fraction of the in-space propulsion systems in use today are chemical rockets, but with the improvements in performance and lifetime that companies like Accion Systems are pioneering in electric propulsion, the electric propulsion segment of the propulsion systems market is projected to grow at the highest CAGR over the next five years.
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