WASHINGTON — Benchmark Space’s first electric thruster is in orbit and ready to begin operations as the company moves into large-scale production of the systems.

The company announced March 19 that its Xantus thruster is on the Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) Weather Systems (EWS) demonstration cubesat built by Orion Space Solutions and launched on the SpaceX Transporter-10 rideshare mission March 4. The company said it expects to soon start firing the thruster after completing on-orbit checkouts.

Xantus is a metal plasma thruster that uses molybdenum as propellant. Benchmark, which has developed chemical propulsion systems, obtained the technology in its August 2022 acquisition of Alameda Applied Science Corporation.

On EWS, a 12U cubesat, the millinewton-class Xantus thruster will be used for end-to-end spacecraft operations, including deorbiting at the end of its mission. Benchmark, though, sees the biggest demand for the thruster on larger spacecraft.

“The bulk of our demand right now is in the microsat class,” said Chris Carella, chief commercial officer of Benchmark, in an interview. On those spacecraft, he said, Xantus would be used in clusters of two or four to provide stationkeeping and other “precision maneuver” applications, such as for proximity operations or payload pointing.

“Xantus does a great job at everything a cubesat needs to do, but mainly where the demand is coming from is that microsat and ESPA-class,” he said.

Benchmark is offering Xantus in combination with chemical propulsion thrusters that offer higher thrust, a “multi-tech hybrid” approach. “We have this toolbox of different technologies,” he said. “Benchmark from the start has wanted to be able to serve a customer from mission to mission even as the mission needs change.”

Benchmark says it is moving ahead with large-scale production of Xantus, with more than 50 units scheduled for delivery this year. That includes more than 10 going to In-Space Missions, a subsidiary of BAE Systems in the United Kingdom that develops small satellites.

The Xantus unit on the EWS cubesat is technically not the first system flown. A Xantus thruster was on an undisclosed satellite launched in January 2023 but which failed to deploy and thus could not be operated.

The earlier thruster was built by Alameda before its acquisition by Benchmark, said Kent Frankovich, vice president of electric propulsion at Benchmark. Since then, the company has refined the design of the thruster with the intent of making it easier to manufacture in large quantities.

“We took what was a hand-assembled unit that we knew would work but was very much not ready for larger production,” he said. “You can make one that works, but can you make 10 or 100?”

In addition to refining the design to scale up production, he said the company has made other changes, such as improving software that runs the thruster and fitting the thruster into a 1U form factor. “That was all about maturing the product.”

“This is going to give us a huge sigh of relief,” Carella said of the upcoming on-orbit tests of Xantus. “Seeing it fire on orbit is that next level of credibility.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...