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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For the Theremin’s 100th anniversary, Moog unveils the gorgeous Claravox Centennial

It’s been a full century since Leon Theremin created the electronic instrument bearing his name, and to celebrate Moog is releasing what must surely be the best-looking (and may be the best-sounding) Theremin of all time: the Claravox Centennial.

With a walnut cabinet, brass antennas, and a plethora of wonderful knobs and dials, the Claravox looks like it emerged from a prewar recording studio, as indeed is the intention.

It’s named after Clara Rockmore, the Soviet musician who played the Theremin in the 1930s to wide acclaim (and probably puzzlement) and contributed significantly to the fame of the instrument and to its design.

The one she played, however, was a mere toy compared to the ones devised by electronic music trailblazer Bob Moog, who built his own from plans published in a 1949 magazine. Later he would iterate on and improve the instrument to make it the versatile yet distinctive Theremin that would become a staple in many genres alongside Moog’s own synthesizers.

The Claravox isn’t meant to be a display piece, though. It’s the ultimate Theremin, packed with modern and old-school tech. You can customize and switch between analog and digital oscillators; the wave shaping circuit is from the Etherwave Pro; there’s a built-in delay and preset storage; the inputs and outputs allow for use with lots of sources and controllers; there’s even a matching stand (sold separately).

It works the same as Theremins always have: the antennas detect the position of one’s hands (or other objects) in the range of their electric fields, and one controls pitch while the other controls volume. Playing the instrument is as much a performance as the music itself, as this excellent rendition of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” shows:

Interested (and deep-pocketed) Theremin aficionados can pre-order their Claravox Centennial today for $1,499. It should ship in December — just in time for the holidays, if you want to surprise that special, synth-loving someone.

#gadgets, #hardware, #instruments, #moog, #music, #tc, #theremin