Credit: Helicity Space

SAN FRANCISCO — Helicity Space, a California startup developing fusion engines for spaceflight, has raised $5 million in a seed funding round announced Dec. 11.

Helicity attracted funding from Airbus Ventures, TRE Ventures, Voyager Space Holdings, E2MC Space, Urania Ventures and Gaingels.

“We’re happy to be backed by long-term strategic partners of substance,” Helicity co-founder Stephane Lintner told SpaceNews. “We almost look at them as future clients.”

Helicity, founded in Pasadena in 2018, avoided publicity in its early years.

“The company took a lot of time dotting the i’s, crossing the t’s and lining up the right science advisors to make sure that before we raised capital, we de-risked the project as much as possible,” said Lintner, a former Goldman Sachs managing director with a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the California Institute of Technology.

With the latest funding, “we’ll deliver a proof-of-concept fusion drive that the company is building,” Lintner said. “Before we put things in space, we need to demonstrate the full device working on Earth at smaller scale. The funding allows us to demonstrate the novelty of this concept.”

Deep Space Missions

Fusion power has been a staple of science fiction because it promises clean, plentiful energy. For spaceflight in particular, fusion engines could slash the travel time to Mars and beyond.

“If we really want to create this expansion, where we actually get to the asteroid fields or to deeper space, even to map it out and figure out what resources are there, you need a different kind of propulsion,” Lintner said.

In contrast to nuclear thermal or nuclear electric power, fusion “frees up much more energy in an extremely efficient way that requires very little fuel,” Lintner said. “Until recently fusion has always been very elusive.”

Helicity’s technology is based on the work of Setthivoine You, Helicity co-founder and chief scientist. You, a plasma physics researcher with a Ph.D. from Imperial College London, has published patents related to fusion drive.

Helicity’s magneto-inertial fusion method was “developed from the ground up with space propulsion in mind,” You said in August at an Interstellar Research Group Symposium.

Helicity’s “has developed a novel approach to fusion reactions, using multiple recombining plasma jets to create and control the conditions necessary for fusion to occur,” Airbus Ventures partner Lewis Pinault told SpaceNews by email. “With several years of research and meticulous supercomputer modeling to prove the viability of this approach, along with private sector investment, the Helicity Space team is now deploying and testing hardware to turn theory to reality.”

Reasonable Belief

Technology development and testing continues in Helicity’s Pasadena laboratory.

“It’s going to take a few years and it’s going to require capital,” Lintner said. “We’re just at the beginning of the journey, but we have reasonable belief that this may work. Given the importance of this type of propulsion for mankind, for our children, to keep Earth clean, we’re really excited with the prospect.”

Pinault added “fusion-based propulsion will revolutionize humankind’s ability to traverse deep space. From establishing settlements on other planets and moons to venturing beyond our solar system and to other capabilities long locked in the realm of science fiction, our collective capacity for space mobility will take one giant leap forward on the back of Helicity Space’s technology.”

Helicity strategic advisors include former NASA astronaut William Ready, a retired U.S. Navy captain and former NASA associate administrator; Alan Stern, former NASA’s Science Mission Directorate leader with a Ph.D. in astrophysics and planetary science from the University of Colorado, Boulder; and Simon “Pete” Worden, former NASA Ames Research Center director and retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general with a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Arizona.

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...