Morpheus Space plans future electric propulsion tests
SAN FRANCISCO — Morpheus Space is meeting with potential customers and raising money for electric propulsion technology the German startup recently demonstrated in orbit.
On Feb. 26, engineers fired Morpheus’ 160-gram Nano Field Effect Electric Propulsion (NanoFEEP) thruster for the first time on the University Würzburg Experimental-4 (UWE-4) cubesat.
Now, Morpheus is preparing for additional tests. The company delivered a NanoFEEP thruster to GomSpace, István Lőrincz, Morpheus co-founder, told SpaceNews. GomSpace, a firm based in Denmark with a propulsion center in Sweden, is beginning large-scale manufacturing of nanosatellites and establishing facilities to produce as many as 350 per year, according to the firm’s 2018 annual report released March 29.
In addition, ZfT, the Center for Telematics in Würzburg, is evaluating NanoFEEP as a candidate to propel satellites for CloudCT, a German and Israeli mission focused on climate research. With 14 million euros ($15.7 million) from the European Research Council, the CloudCT mission is focused on gathering detailed images of cloud structures and properties with 10 miniature satellites flying in formation.
“We are currently evaluating potential candidates for the propulsion system,” Klaus Schilling, president of the Center for Telematics, said by email. “The Morpheus electric propulsion system is certainly a candidate in this evaluation after our good experiences with the electric propulsion system from Dresden used in the UWE-4 mission.”
The primary mission for UWE-4, a 10-centimeter-square cubesat launched in December 2018, is demonstration and characterization of the NanoFEEP thruster as part of the University of Würzburg’s overall campaign to develop technologies for formation flight of cubesats.
The late February demonstration “was the first time electric propulsion on a one-unit cubesat was successfully turned on in orbit,” Lőrincz said. “It was quite awesome.”
The University of Würzburg and Morpheus, a spin-off of the Institute of Aerospace Engineering of the Technical University of Dresden, plan to continue testing NanoFEEP, which combines a liquid gallium propellant with a chip-based neutralizer. Four Morpheus NanoFEEP thrusters are housed in the rails of the UWE-4 cubesat.
In future tests, the UWE-4 operations team plans to fire the Morpheus thruster to change the attitude and orbit of the satellite, Lőrincz said.
Morpheus focuses on technologies to help emerging space companies build, what Lőrincz calls, “agile constellations.” Cubesats equipped with Morpheus thrusters, for example, will be able to dodge collisions and deorbit when their missions conclude, he said.
“With NanoFEEP, a small cubesat could be propelled back into the atmosphere within two years,” Lőrincz said. “With MultiFEEP, one could even dispose of a six-unit cubesat within two years.”
The growing popularity of small satellites has prompted several startups, including Boston-based Accion Systems, Enpulsion of Austria and Orbion Space Technology of Houghton, Michigan, to focus on electric propulsion for miniature satellites.
In addition to NanoFEEP, Morpheus is developing MultiFEEP, a thruster that combines seven NanoFEEP thrusters with additional features for thrust vectoring. MultiFEEP thrusters are designed for three-unit cubesats and larger satellites, Lőrincz said.