On December 1, 2023 at 6:19 PM (UTC), the first Italian all-electric satellite “MicroHETSat”, designed and built by SITAEL for the European Space Agency with Italian Space Agency (ASI) support, lifted off from California on board a SpaceX Falcon-9 mission. After commissioning, the satellite is now in full operation.

Marco Molina, Managing Director Sales and Products SITAEL

“There is legitimate enthusiasm and not only at SITAEL”, reports Marco Molina, Managing Director Sales and Products of the Italian company SITAEL, part of the Angel Group, from its headquarters in Mola di Bari. “All of the stakeholders have followed this maiden flight with high expectations, and we can now proudly report that we are making a key milestone in the history of the space economy in Italy and Europe with the first-ever Italian Hall-effect thruster operating in space. We are one of the few in the world to do so.” “This success has to do with technology”, continues Molina, “but also with entrepreneurship and the long-term vision from the private as well as institutional sides”.

SITAEL is, in fact, a 100% private company that is owned by Angel Holding. It was established as “SITAEL SpA” in 2012 by Cav. Vito Pertosa and is now led by CEO Chiara Pertosa, who is the founder’s daughter.

With its 250 employees, it is the largest space company that is entirely owned by an Italian entrepreneur. “The company has grown during these years with a practical, and we can now say prosperous, progression of a real space economy case”, Molina continues. “There was a research group at University of Pisa extremely competent in plasma physics, at the basis of space electric propulsion. The ingenuity of Cav. Pertosa, the entrepreneur, was to envisage a future practical use of these studies. This is why a spin-off of University of Pisa was incorporated in SITAEL in 2014, fertilized by the industrial mindset of the Angel Group  1,600 engineers.”

Where are your facilities located?

“The electric propulsion factory is in Pisa”, Marco Molina explains. “There, we run our vacuum chamber, the largest in Europe of this kind, for electric propulsion tests in more than 200 cubic meters of volume kept in cryogenic conditions”.

Which institutions supported this endeavor?

“First, we had interest from the Italian Space Agency ASI that enabled us to get through the low TRL steps, which are the most difficult ones: Death Valley where most of the startups fail. The European Space Agency assigned SITAEL, on ASI funds, an In Orbit Demonstration Mission dubbed MicroHETSat. We can now say that having the target of the launch pad provided us with a tremendous incentive to persist toward the goal.”

Tell us more about this satellite and the mission

“The satellite was entirely designed and built by SITAEL, and we are now operating it from the mission control room located in Forlì, near Bologna, in our local offices: All of the electronics come from our clean rooms, likewise the solar panels. The electric propulsion thruster unit, its fluidic control system and the power supply are made by SITAEL. The satellite has onboard 4 kg of Xenon for a mission of about 1 year: With mass of less than 75 kg, it is the largest all-electric microsatellite ever built and is able to climb for dozens of kilometers and demonstrate accurate orbit keeping. NORAD data are confirming that firing operations are raising the satellite as designed, a few kilometers per week.”

Satellite in clean room

Where did you assemble and qualify the MicroHETSat?

Molina explains: “The satellite was built in our premises in Mola di Bari: We have a 1,200 square meter clean room with a test center for environmental tests. Again, the synergy between SITAEL and the public sector, Regione Puglia, which partly funded the buildings inaugurated in 2021, has enabled us to have the largest anechoic chamber in Southern Europe for Electro Magnetic Compatibility tests. In summer 2023 we could, thus, qualify the MicroHETSat for the new launcher (Falcon 9) in less than one month, thanks to the full control of the test facilities.”

What’s the MicroHETSat team composition?

“It is a great team: The youngest is 20 years old because we have not only invested in infrastructure, but also in human resources with a genuine spirit of inclusivity and valorization of diversity. We have hired and continue to hire from the best Italian universities, and we are also able to attract international talents.”

Satellite Expedition Team

What do you expect from this In Orbit Demonstration?

“We are learning a lot”, Molina clarifies. “And we are already implementing the lessons learned from MicroHETSat in the other satellites with our electric propulsion, including the ones for IRIDE constellation that we are providing to ESA”

Do you plan to only provide electric propulsion for small satellites?

Director Molina indicates the way: “We begin with small satellites delivering electric propulsion for constellations. However, we are also in a very advanced stage for high-power electric propulsion: Our five kilowatt thrusters are ideal for orbiting GEO satellites and for flexibly operating Space Tugs for In-Orbit Servicing. We operate our thrusters with Xenon, Krypton, and Argon. We never stop updating our capabilities.”

What are the next challenges?

Molina took a look through the large window, facing the Adriatic Sea and said, “We are now doubling our production capability: The electric propulsion is a well-known issue, by every Space Prime, of technological non-dependence. But we are also growing in the satellites business; we are a new emerging Prime, capable of providing a turn key solutions: the satellite as well as the end-to-end mission, for Telecom and for Earth Observation missions.”

“We expect the demand for these products to climb, and we are already planning the next step toward series production. This will mean new factories, people, challenges, and products. Isn’t that what we all call the space economy?”

This smart company founded 12 years ago is a demonstration that when the public and private spheres work together with a technological vision and deep valorization of human resources the results come. The journey has just begun!