Aurora Propulsion Technologies is one of a handful of startups that have emerged in the past few years to help simplify the problem of spacecraft propulsion. Why is it important?
Recently we have seen that more spacecrafts are being sent into space than ever before. And this number is only going to increase. This is going to make the situation in outer space crowded. Hence, being able to maneuver satellites in space and deorbit them when they reach the end of their useful life will be key. Therefore, Aurora’s simplification solutions are important.
How Aurora Propulsion Technologies got the seed?
Since its founding in 2018, the Finnish company has developed two products. First, a tiny thruster engine, and second, a plasma braking system. Both products will be tested in an in-orbit demonstration. This demonstration will be in the fourth quarter of this year. These activities of Aurora have caught the eye of investors. the company just closed a €1.7 million ($2 million) seed round to bring its technology to market.
The round was led by Lithuanian VC firm Practica Capital. There was additional participation from the state-owned private equity company TESI (Finnish Industry Investment Ltd.) and The Flying Object, a fund from Kluz Ventures. Individual investors also participated.
Details about Aurora’s space missions
Aurora’s first in-orbit demonstration, Aurora Sat-1, will be heading to space on a Rocket Lab rideshare mission. On that satellite will be two modules. The first module will contain six Aurora “resistojet” engines. These are designed to help small spacecraft adjust their orientation and de-tumble. Aurora will also test its Plasma Brake technology. This could be used to de-orbit satellites or even to conduct deep space missions.
Each resistojet thruster is just around one centimeter long. It moves the spacecraft using microliters of water and propellant. The six thrusters are installed around the satellite. The idea is to facilitate movement in virtually any direction. The thruster can also modulate the temperature of the water and the strength of the puff of steam that’s discharged to generate movement.
The theory behind the plasma break and the resistojet
To generate the drag, the Plasma Brake uses an electrically charged microtether and generates a lump of protons. That’s ideal for de-orbiting a spacecraft. But interestingly, the Plasma Brake could also be used for traveling away from the planet. Because, when you move out of the Earth’s magnetosphere, the Plasma Brake becomes unstable and moves with the solar wind (which is also plasma). The same product can jump onto that flow of plasma from the sun and extract energy from that. In that context, it is possible to use it as an interplanetary traveling tool.
Theoretically, if a spacecraft was equipped with multiple tethers extending in different directions, it could be used to rotate and guide the spacecraft, like a sailboat. However, this technology is only scalable to a certain degree. Hence the expectation is not to be sending a crewed spacecraft into deep space anytime soon. That’s mostly due to limitations in the material strength of the Plasma Brake tethers. But the tech can be used for satellites up to around 1,000 kilograms.
The future with this technique
For the short term, Aurora propulsion technologies is focused on low Earth orbit with the Plasma Brake and the resistojet. Later on, when things get hot with the moon business as it slowly is starting, Aurora might look in that direction.
The Plasma Brake and resistojet thruster have to be mounted on spacecraft before they launch to orbit. Therefore, Aurora is in conversation with other companies with the potential of in-orbit installation of Plasma Brakes for existing space junk. In the short term, the company is going to use the funding to productize the technology for low Earth orbit. And also to serialize its production, as well as to add features to the products to equip them for satellites larger than CubeSats.
In the longer term, Aurora has a vision of conducting missions in deep space.
We started off with the idea that we want to make a technology that fits into a really small spacecraft, and travels really fast so that we can catch up with the voyager probes, First to the Moon, and then to Mars, Venus, and then one day maybe able to catch up with the voyagers and take a big trip.Roope Takala, CEO of Aurora