accion systems ion electrospray thrusters
Accion Systems plans to scale up its ion electrospray thrusters into larger systems, like the gridded panels shown here, that can be used on larger satellites. Credit: Accion Systems Inc.

WASHINGTON — A company developing electric propulsion systems suitable for cubesats and other small satellites announced June 17 it has won a $3 million contract from the U.S. Defense Department to advance its technology.

Accion Systems of Cambridge, Massachusetts, said it received a Rapid Innovation Fund contract valued at $3 million. The fund, established by the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, is designed to mature technologies, particularly those developed by small businesses, which could be used on future military programs.

Accion Systems has been developing a technology known as ion electrospray propulsion that was spun off from research performed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is a form of electric propulsion that requires less mass, thrust, and volume than conventional ion engines. The company has already developed one such thruster, called MAX-1, that can fit within a cubesat.

Natalya Brikner, chief executive of Accion Systems, said the Rapid Innovation Fund contract will allow the company to work on next-generation electric propulsion systems that can be scaled up for larger satellites. “Our team is excited to take our technology to the next level of performance and capability,” she said in a June 17 statement.

She added that the company’s technology was included on an undisclosed flight demonstration mission launched last month. “The propulsion system is still waiting its turn in the mission’s order of operations before it will be turned on and evaluated,” she said.

Brikner did not disclose the mission, but among the secondary payloads on the Atlas 5 rocket that launched the X-37B spaceplane May 20 were twin cubesats developed by the Aerospace Corp. called AeroCube-8. The satellites will be testing several technologies, including an ion electrospray propulsion system, according to a summary distributed by the National Reconnaissance Office, which sponsored the mission.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...