Orbion Space Technology of Houghton., Michigan, develops Hall-effect thrusters for small satellites. Credit: Orbion Space Technology

SAN FRANCISCO – Orbion Space Technology announced a U.S. Air Force contract to develop and demonstrate high-thrust propulsion to help small satellites quickly dodge satellites or space debris.

The Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research contract awarded by the Air Force AFWERX program supports Orbion’s work on El Matador, a collision avoidance feature that “allows a spacecraft to elegantly step out of the way and avoid the horns of an incoming threat,” said Brad King, Orbion founder and CEO.

El Matador, which Orbion offers as an option on its Aurora Hall-effect thruster for small satellites, is comprised of a high-thrust cold-gas nozzle inside the thruster head.

“The high-thrust thruster nozzle replaces and serves the same function as a bolt fastener that is in the Aurora Hall thruster – so the nozzle has the same mass as the bolt it is replacing and thus the net mass impact to the system is pretty much zero,” King said by email. “El Matador is not ‘another’ propulsion system added on to the Hall-effect thruster. We instead found a way to modify the Hall-effect thruster to accomplish both functions.”

As more small satellites adopt electric propulsion, which helps them change their orbits, it is becoming more difficult “to reliably predict orbit position days in advance,” Greg Orndorff, Orbion vice president of business development, said by email. “Hence we’re likely to see conjunction notices with smaller alert times.”

In the future, small satellite operators also may seek more control over spacecraft de-orbiting because they may be descending through increasingly crowded regions of low Earth orbit, Orndoff said.

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...