Finnish NewSpace Startup Develops Water Propulsion Tech

There are all sorts of statistics out there about how often tech startups fail, with data research firm CB Insights saying that 70% of upstart businesses close shop in less than two years. Some industries are obviously tougher than others, like consumer hardware with a 97% death rate. 

We’d wager that launching a rocket or satellite company in the commercial NewSpace industry is more difficult than the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field while being chased through the galaxy by Darth Vader (approximately 3,720 to 1, by the way). Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck and stand-in for Pippin Took has said, for instance, the market for launch services is really only big enough to sustain a couple of companies. We know SpaceX isn’t going anywhere, and New Zealand-based Rocket Lab with its 3D-printed rocket engines is probably one of the strongest contenders for that other slot.

Better to be the company that provides the propulsion systems for the hundreds of small satellites that those rockets are taking into orbit around the Earth – and beyond. That’s the business strategy behind Finnish NewSpace startup, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, which may soon get a chance to test its iteration of a quickly emerging technology that relies on water-based propellant for satellite thrusters.

A Good Time to Launch a Space Startup?

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Founded in 2018, Aurora Propulsion Technologies has grown from seven founders to 17 employees in less than a year. No word on funding, but the Finnish startup certainly picked a good time to launch. Startup space ventures attracted $5.7 billion in financing of all types during 2019, shattering the $3.5 billion record set the previous year, according to Bryce Space and Technology, an analytics and engineering firm that puts out some pretty spiffy NewSpace market reports and graphics like the one below:

Total startup space investments since 2017.
Credit: Bryce Space and Technology

Most of that recent big funding, of course, has gone to fuel Elon Musk’s ego, but there was enough left over to provide some amount of capital to 134 other NewSpace startups last year. We did reach out to Aurora on its origin story but never heard back. Presumably, the big brains there are pretty busy preparing for what could be a make-or-break-it year for a company its size. Regular readers may remember a series of articles we did on Finnish startups after a visit to the world’s happiest country. Not only is the startup scene there super interesting, but the Finnish have a competitive sport called eukonkanto, also known as wife carrying, where husbands fling their wives over their shoulders and carry them around an obstacle course. No wonder they’re so damn happy.

What Space Tech is Aurora Propulsion Technologies Developing?

But we digress. Let’s take a look at the tech.

Aurora is currently developing three products around satellite propulsion systems, just as the name says, though two of them are strongly related. The thing to keep in mind here is that these propulsion systems are not rockets trying to escape Earth’s gravity. Rather, they’re designed to tweak the orbit and orientation of the satellite once it begins its spin around the planet. Aurora is developing a line of small plug-and-play orbital thrusters, as well as a 12-thruster control module that provides even more maneuverability and stability for satellites. The differentiator is that the resistojet propulsion system uses H20 as a propellant. We couldn’t find the details on Aurora’s specific water propulsion design, but generally, these systems split water into hydrogen and oxygen for use as fuel. 

A very similar-sounding resistojet propulsion system out of the University of Tokyo was supposed to be tested from the International Space Station last year. SpaceNews reported that such water propulsion systems are gaining steam, with space radar startup Capella Space flying a water electrothermal propulsion system called Comet from Netherlands-based Bradford Space. Meanwhile, NASA has been working with and supporting a smaller aerospace-type company, Tethers Unlimited, on the first viable water-electrolysis engine that uses electricity to split water molecules for fuel. In other words, water is hot, especially if future astronauts can fuel up by mining H20 from depots on the moon or even asteroids.

The resistojet orbital thruster, 12-thruster module, and plasma brake module from Aurora Propulsion Technologies.
The resistojet orbital thruster, 12-thruster module, and plasma brake module. Credit: Aurora Propulsion Technologies

The other product from Aurora is something called a Plasma Brake Module, which involves using a tether thinner than a human hair for an anchor. About 500 meters long, the tether slows the descent of the satellite as it drops back into Earth’s atmosphere by creating drag through its interaction with plasma in the upper atmosphere.

Future Missions for Aurora Propulsion Technologies

At least that’s what Perttu Yli-Opas, Aurora chief technology officer, told SpaceNews in a recent article about how the Finnish startup piqued the interest of Momentous Space, a Silicon Valley startup developing in-space transportation services. The company has already raised more than $33 million to help ferry satellites within and into higher orbits. Momentous likes Aurora’s plasma brake tech because it could diversify its own service offerings, expanding to include satellite de-orbiting as part of its orbiting taxi service. Another plus is that Momentous has already shown interest in water propulsion systems by testing a water plasma thruster with smallsat imagery startup Astro Digital a few years ago.

SpaceNews also noted that Aurora plans to send a 1.5-unit cubesat into orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December 2020 before riding on a Momentous mission next year. Of course, those were pre-COVID plans.

The electric sail concept from Aurora Propulsion Technologies.
The electric sail concept. Credit: Aurora Propulsion Technologies

Aurora Propulsion has ambitions of its own beyond being a plug-and-play component manufacturer. The company is attempting to bring together an international consortium of partners for a deep-space mission to send a small probe beyond the solar system. It took NASA’s Voyager 1 probe 35 years to break into the starry abyss past our little neighborhood. The North Star Mission proposes to do it in as little as a decade, powered by an electric sail. The basic concept behind this emerging propellantless propulsion tech is that an electric sail deploys positively charged tethers. The solar wind interacts with the tethers to provide propulsion. As far as we know, the project is currently nothing more than a nine-slide PDF.

Conclusion

Current events have us sticking our heads in the sand rather than looking to the stars where the potential for exploration is nearly infinite. It’s interesting to see the rapid evolution of the NewSpace industry, as entrepreneurs like the ones who run Aurora Propulsion innovate their way into new niche markets. But this is truly becoming a commercial space race and only the swiftest (and often well-funded) will reach the upper atmosphere of success. Most won’t even get off the ground, so Aurora Propulsion Technologies is at least off to a good start.

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