Austrian startup ramping to mass produce tricky electric propulsion thrusters
WASHINGTON — Austrian startup Enpulsion claims to have found the key to bringing a notoriously difficult propulsion technology to market.
To do so, Enpulsion has raised 3.4 million euros — 1 million for European Space Agency (ESA) research and 2.4 million from private sources and the European Commission — and is establishing a U.S. division in San Francisco, Richard Sypniewski Jr., Enpulsion’s senior business development engineer, told SpaceNews.
Enpulsion is commercializing a Field Emission Electric Propulsion, or FEEP, thruster starting with small satellites ranging from 3 to 100 kilograms, Sypniewski said. ESA and industry have studied FEEP systems for well over a decade, but with limited success getting the technology beyond the laboratory.
The lure of FEEP thrusters is their ability to enable extremely precise movements or station-keeping while in space. ESA intended to use FEEP thrusters from Austria’s Fotec for the Lisa Pathfinder science mission, but production complications contributed meaningfully to the mission’s delays and ESA ultimately replaced the thrusters with more mature cold gas thrusters.
Enpulsion spun out of Fotec, a research division of the University of Applied Sciences Wiener Neustadt in Austria, to commercialize a breakthrough involving the use of a “porous tungsten crown emitter,” which Sypniewski said “provides a stable and repeatable technology that can be produced on a mass-production scale.”
“We have an enormous interest from worldwide small satellite manufacturers in our product,” Alexander Reissner, Enpulsion’s founder and CEO, said in a statement. “The key to this success is the concept of clustering pre-qualified building blocks, which is made possible by our proprietary Indium-FEEP technology. It seems that our offer of providing a custom propulsion solution at a catalog price and with less than two months lead time is really hitting a nerve of the industry.”
Sypniewski said the company plans to produce 100 to 200 thrusters per year, and has 150 pre-orders from customers in Europe and the United States. Among those customers is Iceye, a Finnish synthetic aperture radar startup that is flying a cluster of Enpulsion FEEP thrusters next year.
Sypniewski said Fotec continues to support Enpulsion with a team of more than 40 full-time engineers. Enpulsion consists of 15 full time employees today, he said, and will open its U.S. office with two full-time employees.
“The plan is to expand quickly as demands are high,” he said.
Sypniewski said Enpulsion is producing FEEP thrusters in Austria, but is open to manufacturing in the U.S. if demand there warrants further expansion.