It’s easy to think of satellites as a group of mini-moons that orbit the Earth with no (noticeable) motion. But this isn’t perfect: satellites and other spacecraft often require fairly constant changes in their position in orbit.
Historically, the aerospace industry has relied on thrusters, or a combination of reaction wheels and magnetic torque rods, to control the attitude, control, and position of spacecraft. But these take up a lot of space and mass, and limit how long a spacecraft can stay in orbit. based in New Zealand xeno astronautics These heavy and time-limited propulsion systems have come up with an alternative. The core technology is an electromagnet that generates a very strong magnetic field, which can interact with other magnetic fields – such as those on other spacecraft, or even Earth’s – to generate torque. .
The technology caught the interest of investors, who recently contributed to a NZ$10.5 million ($6.585 million) seed round. New Zealand-based VC firm GD1 (Global from Day One) and Nuance Connected Capital led the round, with additional participation from Shasta Ventures. NZGCP, K1W1, Austrian billionaire Wolfgang Leitner, Alt Ventures, Enterprise Angels, Archisys and NZVC.
Funding will take Xeno an expected start of 18 months, culminating in its first launch in the fourth quarter of 2023. Around the same time, the company expects to operate a production facility with a massive manufacturing capacity of 1,000 electromagnetics. system per year.
“We can generate a new kind of force in space,” founder Max Arshavsky told Meczyki.Net. “It’s really the most fundamental breakthrough we’ve had.”
Zeno got its start five years ago, when Arshawski was a student at the University of Auckland, home of New Zealand’s first program for space systems studying physics.
The startup’s first propellant system, called the Z01 or Supertorqueer, is fairly simple, as Arshavsky explains it: using a coil of wire to create an electromagnet (also called a solenoid for the engineers out there) ). That electromagnet generates a strong magnetic field, which then interacts with Earth so that the satellite can point itself with respect to the planet.
Previous attempts to develop this technology limited how much current you could pass through a single piece of conventional wire. Zeno’s breakthrough is using a high-temperature superconducting wire that has zero resistance to the flow of electric current, in order to push a large amount of current. The greater the amount of current, the stronger the magnetic field. The company has also solved some other constraints, such as requiring the wire to operate at about 80 Kelvin, or -193 Celsius, which is much colder than the vacuum of space.
The result is a system that the company says takes up 20 times less space than a traditional propulsion system. In addition to pointing satellites, electromagnetic systems can also be used for inter-satellite interactions, such as orbital debris cleanup, spacecraft docking or in-orbit servicing. Arshavsky said most spacecraft have something that can interact with an electromagnet, such as a magnetic torque rod, so the technology is compatible with older spacecraft, even if they weren’t equipped with Zeno’s system.
The company is also working on using its technology to protect the interior of spacecraft – either the crew or cargo – from the massive amounts of radiation in outer space. Magnetic fields can be used to deflect charged particle radiation, which can extend the lifetime of spacecraft in orbit or protect the crew. This is an important problem for solving deep space crewed missions, including to Mars.
Magnetic fields don’t act differently in a vacuum, which means the company has been able to test the system here on Earth. The next step is taking it into space. Zeno aims to launch a full-scale attitude control system in the fourth quarter of 2023 with Italian company D-Orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 ride-share mission.
“Our technology readiness level is currently around six by NASA scalewhich means we’ve tested all the systems and subsystems in the lab, and the next step for us is testing things in orbit,” Arshavsky said. focusing on manufacturing, which was “designed to go up on a rocket, [be] Violently shaking, and then working reliably in space,” he said. That system would be provided to de-orbit at some point in the middle of ’23’ so that it could be integrated, and then shipped to the US for launch.
Despite the system’s first orbital test a year and a half away, the company has received enough interest in its technology that it plans to set up its aforementioned large-scale manufacturing facility.
“We currently have a lot of traction with the industry […] And we want to make sure we don’t miss out,” Arshavsky explained.
The company signed a third sales agreement with a delivery date in February 2024, so the production facility needs to be up and running by then. In addition to a Constellation commitment in the pipeline, Zeno has sales agreements with US-based satellite owners and operators worth “several million dollars”. While Arshavsky didn’t specify the names of customers or the size of the constellation, Zeno is clearly preparing to move forward in the coming few years altogether.
Zeno will also use some of the seed funding to grow its team, which currently stands at 11 full-time employees. At the time of the investment, the company had only four or five full-time employees, so the workforce has already doubled in a short period of time. Zeno has also roped in Peter Crabtree, the founder of the New Zealand Space Agency, as its board chairman. D-Orbit CEO and founder Luca Rossetti is also coming on board as an advisor.