Accion Systems raises $42 million in Series C to accelerate development of 4th-gen propulsion system

Space propulsion developer Accion Systems has closed its most significant funding round yet. The company raised $42 million in a Series C led by Tracker Capital, bringing its valuation to $83.5 million.

Along with the investment, Tracker Capital also acquired a majority stake in the company. This latest injection of capital will facilitate the development and manufacturing of the company’s fourth generation propulsion system, dubbed the tiled ionic liquid electrospray (TILE) system.

The TILE system uses electrical energy to push charge particles (ions) out its back to generate propulsion. While ion engines have been around for decades, Accion uses a liquid propellant, an ionic liquid salt, instead of gas. The liquid is inert and non-pressurized, meaning there’s no risk of explosion. It also results in a product that doesn’t need bulky components like ionization chambers, and an overall smaller and lighter weight system relative to the spacecraft – key considerations in space, where every gram of payload has a high price tag.

“It lets us build really, really small systems,” Accion co-founder Natalya Bailey explained to TechCrunch. “Instead of trying to take an existing ion engine the size of a Prius and shrink it down, we can start with very small systems because of this propellant.” And she does mean small – each thruster tile is about the size of a postage stamp.

The TILE system is also scalable and modular, meaning it could feasibly be used on anything from cubesats to propelling an interplanetary spacecraft, Accion CEO Peter Kant added in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “It’s one of the few occasions where the total addressable market and the actual addressable market that we can serve are pretty closely aligned and almost overlap,” he said.

The newest generation of the TILE system is the same size as its predecessors, but Accion is increasing the number of emitters on a given chip – emitters being the technology that actually shoots out the ions, generating the momentum – by almost tenfold. “We get more ions per area and that gives us a whole lot more thrust with the same amount of space,” Kant said.

Accion is looking to ship the first fourth-gen thruster systems in the middle to late summer of 2022.

The TILE system was developed by Accion co-founders Natalya Bailey and Louis Perna while the two were at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The tech generated a ton of interest from big aerospace companies, but they decided to found Accion in 2014 rather than sell. The company manufactures and assembles its product at its facility in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

The TILE system was onboard commercial spacecraft, one with Astra Digital and one with NanoAvionics, that went up on SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch at the end of June. Accion started by focusing on serving smaller spacecraft first, like cubesats, but Bailey said that was just the beginning.

“We’re going after that segment initially, and then intending to reinvest our learnings in building larger and larger systems that eventually can do big geostationary satellites and interplanetary missions and so on. The systems that went up on the most recent launcher [is] probably good for a satellite up to about 50 kilograms [. . .] For us, it’s on the smaller end of where we intend to go.”

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Magdrive secures Seed funding for new propulsion system which could take us to the stars

A startup with a new type of spacecraft propulsion system could make the interplanetary travel seen in Star Trek a reality. Magdrive has just closed a £1.4M seed round led by Founders Fund, an early investor in SpaceX, backed by Luminous Ventures, 7percent Ventures, and Entrepreneur First.

Magdrive is developing a next generation of spacecraft propulsion for small satellites. The startup says its engine’s thrust and efficiency are a “generational leap” ahead of any other electrical thrusters, opening up the space industry to completely new types of missions that were not possible before, without resorting to much larger, expensive and heavier chemical thrusters. It says its engine would make fast and affordable interplanetary space travel possible, as well as operations in Very Low Earth orbit. The engine would also make orbital manufacturing far more possible than previously.

Existing electrical solutions are very efficient but have very low thrust. Chemical thrusters have high thrust but lack efficiency and are hazardous and expensive to handle. Magdrive says its engine can deliver both high thrust and high efficiency in one system.

Magdrive prototype render

Magdrive prototype render

If it works, the Magdrive engine could make spacecraft go faster for longer. This could open up the industry to new space missions, such as a satellite (or X-wing fighter?) that can make multiple, fast maneuvers, without worrying about conserving fuel. In order to do this right now, satellites require a chemical thruster, which requires a significant payload in fuel for launch. A 200kg satellite would require 50kg of hydrazine fuel, which would cost £1,350,000 in launch mass alone.

Co-founder (and Star Trek fan) Dr Thomas Clayson did a PhD in plasma physics, working on advanced electromagnetic fields. He realized this could be a cornerstone for developing a plasma thruster that could achieve the accelerations required for interplanetary space travel. After meeting Mark Stokes, a mechanical engineer at Imperial College London with similar dreams of space travel, they decided to build a small scale thruster for satellites.

But Magdrive is not alone. Other companies are developing so-called ‘Hall Effect Thrusters’, which is a technology that has existed since the 1960’s. Much of the development is towards miniaturization and mass reduction, but thrust and efficiency remain the same. These companies include Busek, Exotrail, Apollo Fusion, Enpusion, Nanoavionics. Meanwhile, large international companies with huge technology portfolios are working on improving chemical propulsion and making it non-toxic to handle, such as Aerojet Rocketdyne and Moog ISP.

They plan to scale up our technology to power larger manned spacecraft (once in orbit) to long-distance destinations such as the Moon and Mars. Our system would present a much more affordable than a chemical or nuclear solution, due to the huge reduction in fuel costs, and because it is reusable.

Andrew J Scott, Founding Partner, 7percent Ventures: “At 7percent we seek founding teams with ‘moonshot’ ambitions. With Magdrive this is not just a metaphor: their revolutionary plasma thruster will soon be powering satellites, but in the future could take us to deep space. While the UK’s expertise in constructing satellites is world-renowned, there has been far less focus on propulsion. In fact, Great Britain is the only country to have successfully developed and then, in the 1970’s abandoned, an indigenous satellite launch capability, which undoubtedly curbed the UK’s space sector. So we’re excited to be backing Magdrive, one of a new generation of British space startups, which has the vision and ambition to become a world-beating company in this burgeoning sector.”

The satellite industry is worth $5 Billion in 2020, predicted to grow to USD$30Billion by 2030, due to the rise in mega-constellations. Some 5,000 satellites are due to be launched in the next two years and 75% of all the companies launching these satellites have already flown something in space.

Magdrive is at the European Space Agency Business Incubation Centre in Harwell, Oxford.

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