Updated Aug. 11 at 3:08 p.m. Eastern.
French propulsion startup ThrustMe received 2.4 million euros ($2.8 million) from the European Commission to commercialize an electric propulsion system for small satellites.
ThrustMe is one of a growing number of startups creating products for the fast-growing small satellite market. Like the proliferation of launch startups targeting small satellites, other parts of the small satellite ecosystem, such as satellite control, data downlinking and component manufacturing, are gaining entrants.
ThrustMe received its European Commission funding Aug. 1 following a May selection through the EC’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation investment program, ThrustMe founder and chief executive Ane Aanesland told SpaceNews.
“Now we are setting up a pilot line for production of the propulsion systems,” she said.
ThrustMe is commercializing technology from France’s Ecole Polytechnique plasma physics laboratory and CNRS, the French National Center for Scientific Research. The 18-month-old company has raised 4.6 million euros to date, and in April moved into a newly built 300-square-meter headquarters in Paris. The company has 15 people on its payroll, according to Aanesland.
ThrustMe’s 1-kilogram propulsion system has produced up to 0.9 millinewtons of thrust in ground demonstrations with the French aerospace research lab ONERA.
Aanesland said the first satellite with a ThrustMe propulsion unit is scheduled to launch next year. She declined to name the satellite or its launch vehicle.
ThrustMe’s first product is a 30- to 70-watt thruster capable of propelling small satellites between 10 and 50 kilograms in size, Aanesland said. She said the company is developing a 300- watt thruster for satellites between 200 and 300 kilograms. Customers can use multiple thrusters to match different satellite masses, she said.
ThrustMe’s thrusters run on xenon, an inert gas commonly used for electric propulsion, but future systems will support iodine. Since iodine doesn’t need to be pressurized, it requires a fraction of xenon’s storage volume, Aanesland said.
“It is extremely efficient in volume, and also efficient in the way we have integrated the iodine propellant and feed system into the propulsion system,” she said.
Iodine is more corrosive than xenon, making it more difficult to use, she said, but ThrustMe still sees potential for it. By using iodine and breakthroughs in propulsion technology, ThrustMe claims its thrusters can generate twice as much thrust with 40 percent the mass of traditional gridded and hall-effect xenon thrusters.
Aanesland said ThrustMe is taking orders for iodine thrusters now for a beta version that will be ready in mid-2019. The initial iodine thruster will produce less thrust than it’s xenon counterpart; Aanesland said ThrustMe is working on an upgraded version with thrust equal to xenon for delivery in the early 2020s.
Aanesland said ThrustMe anticipates shipping five thrusters for two customers next year, and scaling up by 2020 to be able to ship 50 to 70 thrusters a year.
ThrustMe is one of many startups developing new propulsion systems for smallsats. Others that have raised funding the past few years include Accion Systems of Boston, Enpulsion in Austria, Phase Four in El Segundo, California, and Apollo Fusion of Mountain View, California.
Like executives with many of those companies, Aanesland said she suspects there are more startups emerging than will make it, but added that demand abounds for those that can prove themselves.
“If you look at the number of satellites that are planned and the complexity of producing propulsion systems, it is sure that we cannot even meet the market today,” she said. “I think the requests for propulsion systems is higher than all of the means that can deliver. But then again it depends on the technologies. Not all of the technologies are proven. Some have better performances than others. Clearly we believe ThrustMe has the technology to compete.”