WASHINGTON — Satellite manufacturer Terran Orbital has signed an agreement with French aerospace giant Safran to explore U.S.-based production of satellite propulsion systems, the companies announced June 23.

Under the agreement, Safran Electronics & Defense and Terran Orbital  will investigate opportunities and prerequisites for the production of electric propulsion systems for satellites based on Safran’s PPSX00 plasma thruster. 

The PPSX00 is a hall effect plasma thruster, recently introduced by Safran for the low Earth orbit satellite market.

“Plasma propulsion has become the go-to solution for satellite positioning, orbital transfer and stationkeeping, because it offers significant weight savings over conventional chemical propulsion,” Safran said.

Terran Orbital makes small satellites in Irvine, California. One of its major customers is defense contractor Lockheed Martin, also a strategic investor in Terran Orbital. 

Safran and Terran Orbital “will undertake an in-depth analysis to determine the technical, industrial and economic prerequisites for a new U.S.-based production line for electric propulsion systems,” the companies said. 

Rendering of the PPSX00 plasma thruster, which debuted in September 2022 at the International Astronautical Congress in France. Credit: Benoit Vallet / Safran

The propulsion hardware would be made in Irvine.

Marc Bell, Terran Orbital’s chairman and CEO, said the company decided to work with Safran because of its “immense flight heritage.” Safran is one of the largest defense contractors in Europe, “and their goal is to build their components here in the United States.”

For Terran Orbital, this would be an opportunity to become more vertically integrated, Bell said. “Right now we build 85% of our components and modules in house, and we’re looking to get to 100%. And the two things we don’t build in house today are propulsion and radios.”

Some of the company’s propulsion suppliers include Astra’s Apollo Fusion, Stellar Exploration and Phase Four. 

There is no specific timeline for the agreement with Safran, he said. “We’re looking at everything from joint ventures to licensing deals.”

Jean-Marie Bétermier, senior vice president for space at Safran Electronics & Defense, said developing “effective and sustainable propulsion systems for satellites is a critical challenge worldwide, as increasingly stringent international regulations stipulate greater sustainability and resilience in spacecraft. requirements of LEO satellites.”

“Our alliance with Terran Orbital will contribute to the emergence of a complementary source of supply for electric propulsion systems to meet the growing needs of the space industry,” he said. “A higher degree of spacecraft maneuverability is needed to avoid collisions, along with a system to deorbit LEO satellites at the end of their service life.”

Safran says its PPSX00 plasma thrusters, rated at about one kilowatt of power, would fill these needs.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...