Electric propulsion to send smallsats from LEO to GEO orbit, moon

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LOGAN, Utah — In an effort to cut launch costs, companies are looking to technology to transport small satellites from low Earth orbit to geostationary orbit and to the moon.

Roccor, a small company based in Longmont, Colorado, that specializes in deployable space structures, kicked off a program recently to produce a solar array for one such mission. After a rocket drops the spacecraft off in low Earth orbit, Roccor solar arrays will generate “several kilowatts of power” to move it to geostationary orbit, said Doug Campbell, Roccor chief executive. Campbell declined to name the customer due to a nondisclosure agreement.

“It is expensive to launch satellites to geostationary orbit,” Campbell told SpaceNews during an interview at the Small Satellite Conference here. “We see this as a huge unmet need.”

By participating in this project, Roccor has developed a new product it intends to market: a full solar wing that can be stowed compactly for launch and deployed in orbit, Campbell said.

Blue Canyon Technologies, a small satellite supplier based in Boulder, Colorado, is bidding on two missions to transport spacecraft from low Earth to geostationary orbit with electric propulsion in addition to a mission to send a satellite from low Earth orbit to the moon. The missions are scheduled to fly within the next couple of years, said George Stafford, Blue Canyon chief executive and president. With electric propulsion, it will take a satellite about four months to move from low Earth to geostationary orbit and six months to reach the moon, said Daniel Hegel, Blue Canyon advanced development director.

Because the satellite industry is going through a period of rapid change, some geostationary satellite operators have been reluctant to invest in new spacecraft. The cost calculation would change if spacecraft could travel from low Earth to geostationary orbit, Stafford told SpaceNews during an interview at the Small Satellite Conference.

In the past, satellites booked rides to their desired orbit because most electric propulsion systems were not powerful enough to help them move from low Earth to geostationary and the systems that would have made that possible were prohibitively expensive, Hegel said.

New advanced propulsion systems promise that capability. “Proving it out is what’s next,” Stafford said.