SAN FRANCISCO – TransAstronautica, a startup founded by Joel Sercel, the former Momentus chief technology officer, is raising money for a competing space logistics venture.
TransAstra’s business plan starts with transportation for satellites in orbit and extends to refueling rockets with resources harvested from asteroids.
“We’re going to build the transcontinental railroad of space,” Sercel, the Southern California startup’s founder and CEO, told SpaceNews. “We will make it more affordable to move satellites and payloads from where they are in orbit to where they need to go.”
Since it was established in 2015, TransAstra has developed technologies to extract water and other raw materials from the moon, planets and asteroids. Before Sercel joined Momentus in early 2019 and again after he left the company at the end of 2019, TransAstra also focused on technologies for the emerging space logistics market.
TransAstra’s core technology is Omnivore, a solar thermal rocket engine designed to run on water, ammonia, hydrogen and other fuel sources. The company also has patented an invention it calls Optical Mining.
“We use concentrated sunlight to fracture the asteroid … while simultaneously heating the small fragments to a temperature where they release their volatiles,” explained Chris Dreyer, engineering director in the Colorado School of Mines Center for Space Resources. Dreyer and Sercel have developed and demonstrated Optical Mining technology with grants from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
Under another NIAC grant, TransAstra is developing tall power generation stations to bring solar energy to the moon’s shadowed regions. NIAC grants support “innovative, technically credible, advanced concepts that could one day ‘change the possible’ in aerospace,” Jason Derleth, NASA NIAC program executive, said by email.
“NIAC is interested in TransAstra’s work because it fits our program’s charter – if TransAstra were to succeed in its mission of harvesting and utilizing in-situ space resources, then mining them and making them commercially available, it is conceivable that everything about space could change,” Derleth said. “Having pre-emplaced spacecraft fuel or water for humans would mean that the outer reaches of our solar system would become more accessible for robotic spacecraft; Mars would be more accessible to humans; and nearly all spacecraft could be designed do more science for less money.”
After years of quietly developing and testing technology, Sercel is publicly revealing TransAstra’s ambitions in part because the firm was accepted into the well-known Y Combinator accelerator, whose alumni include Relativity Space and Momentus. TransAstra also is sharing plans now because “we are ready to launch Omnivore to the market,” Sercel said.
The timing couldn’t be better, Sercel said, because of strong investor interest in the space sector in general and in space logistics specifically.
Momentus shares began trading Aug. 13 on Nasdaq. D-Orbit, an Italian space logistics company backed by Seraphim Capital, is expected to become part of the Seraphim Space Investment Trust when it finishes its current fundraising round. Other firms are raising money for satellite servicing and debris removal ventures.
Is TransAstra offering potential Momentus investors an alternative? Sercel declined to discuss Momentus, saying he has not worked there for more than a year and a half. He said, though, that he “has great affection for the engineering team and wishes them all the best.”
Sercel anticipates booming demand for space logistics services to provide business for many companies.
“There are half a dozen launch companies developing fully reusable medium-class systems that will compete head-to-head with [SpaceX’s] Falcon 9,” Sercel said. “This is going to cause a collapse of launch costs and an explosion of businesses in low Earth orbit. Low Earth orbit is going to be the place to be starting at about 2022.”
If all goes as planned, TransAstra will begin regularly scheduled flights in a couple years of its Worker Bee spacecraft. Worker Bee, a space tug powered by the Omnivore engine, is designed to house small satellites on rideshare flights and deliver them to custom orbits after a larger rocket drops them off. Although the first few Worker Bees will be expendable, the tug is designed to be refueled at orbiting propellant depots like Orbit Fab’s Tanker-001 satellite launched June 30.
“We’ll rendezvous with a depot, fuel up with that propellant whatever it is and head off to the next mission,” Sercel said.
TransAstra’s Omnivore engine could launch, for example, with water propellant and refuel in orbit with hydrazine or liquid hydrogen.
Worker Bee space tugs are one element of TransAstra’s Apis family of flight systems. The Apis family includes a 250-kilogram Mini Bee technology demonstrator as well as larger Honey Bee and Queen Bee spacecraft designed to harvest propellant from asteroids.
Investor response to date has been strong. TransAstra is attracting seed funding from private wealth management firms, venture capital and angel investors.
“Joel has got decades of experience in the industry, experience that will be valuable in developing this technology and doing it in a capital-efficient manner,” said Mark Friday, managing director of Houston-based Cathexis Ventures, an investor in TransAstra and Momentus.
Daniel Britt, an astronomy and planetary sciences professor at the University of Central Florida and director of the Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science, isn’t surprised by investor interest in TransAstra.
“There are a fair number of frenzied angel investors looking to put money into various space resource ventures,” said Britt, a member of TransAstra’s advisory board. To explain that frenzy, he pointed to the settlement of North America.
The key to allowing the exploration and settlement of North America was not its discovery in 1492, Britt said, but the drop in transportation costs in the next 100 years. Recent declines in the cost of space transportation are opening the door to new applications like space resource utilization, which promises to further cut transportation costs, he added.
“People are starting to get interested because you’re on the cusp of revolutionizing the whole space enterprise,” Britt said. “If you look at it from a historical point of view, the chance to be on the ground floor of something like that is pretty attractive.”
Robert Jedicke of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, another member of TransAstra’s advisory board, sees parallels between the firm’s work and the first American transcontinental railroad. Prior to its construction, the journey across the country took “two months, on dirt roads, through streams and rivers, with no gas stations along the way,” Jedicke said by email. Once the railroad was completed, roads and service stations followed quickly.
“Now we have a similar situation where it might be imagined that some of the barriers are difficult, getting off Earth, vacuum, heat, cold, but we are vastly more advanced in our capabilities,” Jedicke said. “I thoroughly believe that overcoming the hurdles to populating cislunar space and developing a space-based economy, perhaps with water as its transportation fuel source, is a matter of convergence.”
For evidence that the necessary components are coming together, Jedicke pointed to ongoing work by companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin as well as government agencies to establish a “vibrant space-based economy.”
“It just requires visionaries, funding and serendipity,” Jedicke said.