Rendering of spacecraft with Benchmark hybrid propulsion system. Credit: Benchmark

LOGAN, Utah — Benchmark Space Systems announced plans Aug. 8 to acquire Alameda Applied Science Corp.’s electric propulsion technologies, and to begin offering customers hybrid chemical-electric propulsion systems.

Hybrid propulsion eliminates “the need for satellite operators and end users to compromise between speed and endurance,” Chris Carella, Benchmark executive vice president of business development and strategy, told SpaceNews. The Burlington, Vermont, company intends to offer hybrid systems that are “not only cost competitive, but also increase return on investment and capability,” he added.

After determining that many customers would benefit from a hybrid propulsion system, Benchmark, a company that is rapidly expanding its chemical propulsion manufacturing line, conducted an extensive review of millinewton-class electric propulsion technologies.

“The metal plasma thruster technology by AASC was compelling and differentiated enough in its class where we decided to acquire the technology,” Carella said.

AASC Xantus thrusters, which are scheduled to be demonstrated in space later this year, are “deceptively simple,” said AASC President Mahadevan Krishnan. “You take a 45 volt capacitor, put it in a box with a chunk of metal and the metal spits out plasma at 10 miles a second and propels the spacecraft.”

Benchmark intends to pair its own Halcyon high-test peroxide thrusters with Xantus thrusters in a turnkey propulsion system.

In the near term, satellites weighing 50 to 200 kilograms will benefit from Benchmark’s new hybrid propulsion systems, Carella said.

Millinewton thrusters already serve the needs of cubesats. For microsatellites and ESPA-class satellites, electric propulsion can take over “all of the things that chemical propulsion doesn’t do well,” Carella said.

For example, chemical thrusters could rapidly move satellites into their optimal orbits before electric thrusters take over station-keeping.

Adding electric propulsion also promises to reduce volume and mass compared with chemical propulsion alone, Carella said. “We’re downsizing what would be a chemical propellant-only system by putting in this lightweight, miniature cruise control functionality,” he added.

AASC’s metal plasma thrusters have undergone extensive ground testing and have been integrated in a weather satellite Orion Space is scheduled to launch later this year under a U.S. Space Force contract.

If the weather satellite demonstration is successful, AACS anticipates strong demand for the thrusters, which it would not be able to meet without Benchmark’s help.

If a customer wants 50 or 100 of these thrusters, Krishnan said he will give the customer Benchmark’s number.

“As a small business, I wouldn’t even be credible to many customers if they were serious about putting a constellation of 300 satellites and they needed 600 engines to begin with and a refresh rate of 100 engines every six months,” Krishnan said.

As part of the acquisition agreement, Benchmark is gaining AASC intellectual property associated with the metal plasma thruster, emerging technologies in metal plasma physics, one AASC employee who will head Benchmark’s electric propulsion line and a portion of Krishnan’s time.

Someday, metal plasma thrusters could run on metal discarded in space.

“Any metal can be used as a propellant,” said Krishnan. “You can eventually think of covering an entire spacecraft with these. As it goes further into deep space, it consumes itself, leaving behind just your payload when you get to wherever you’re going.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...