The space industry seeks new solutions to ensure economic and environmental space sustainability with the rise of satellite mega-constellations. A solution lies in the use of in-orbit propulsion, but traditional systems are not fit for the New Space paradigm. Today, ThrustMe announces that they have successfully tested the first iodine-fuelled electric propulsion system in space aboard the Spacety Beihangkongshi-1 satellite. This world first in-orbit
demonstration has the potential to transform the space industry.
On 28 December 2020, the first iodine electric propulsion system to be launched into space was successfully fired, with a second successful test on 2 January 2021. Both test burns were performed by ThrustMe’s NPT30-I2-1U propulsion system onboard the Beihangkongshi -1 satellite from Spacety. The satellite was launched on 6 November 2020, and after several weeks of satellite commissioning, the propulsion system was operated during two 90-minute burns resulting in a total altitude change of 700m. These tests represent the first in-space operation of the NPT30-I2-1U, and the first demonstration of iodine as a viable propellant for electric propulsion systems: an important step in accelerating its commercial adoption.
The use of iodine as a propellant is a breakthrough for the satellite industry. It allows propulsion systems to be delivered completely prefilled to customers, and for the satellite integration process to be significantly simplified and streamlined. Therefore, iodine offers the potential to provide both economic, and environmental sustainability for the space industry. Indeed, most conventional electric propulsion systems make use of xenon or krypton which are expensive, rare, and must be stored under very high pressure. Furthermore, satellite assembly, integration and testing can be more complicated since specialized equipment and trained personnel are required to safely load fuel tanks with such propellants. Iodine by contrast can be stored as a solid at room temperature, is much cheaper, more
abundant, and completely unpressurized.
“In 2008, we identified iodine as an ideal propellant for electric propulsion. Since then, we have developed a number of key technologies to be able to offer, as of today, a complete, standalone, propulsion system to meet current and emerging market needs. This is an important product for our customers as it allows them to deploy their satellite constellations, and to take corrective actions to mitigate collision or debris risks”, says Ane Aanesland, CEO of ThrustMe.
“It has been a long road to bring this product from dream to reality. To make it happen we had to innovate, develop a complex system from the ground up, and perform fundamental research studies since many properties of iodine are missing in scientific databases. I am happy that we have ended up with a very high performance, safe and reliable propulsion system that is now available for any SmallSat”, says Dmytro Rafalskyi, CTO of ThrustMe.
In 2020, the European Space Agency (ESA), supported the development of ThrustMe’s NPT30-I2-1U propulsion system through the ARTES C&G programme (funded by France) for innovative technologies for the satcom industry. In addition to the in-orbit-demonstration, the NPT30-I2-1U is being prepared for the Geostationary (GEO) satellite market and a separate unit is currently undergoing extensive radiation testing, which ThrustMe says is going as planned. “The successful launch and the first firings are significant milestones in the development of ThrustMe’s iodine electric propulsion system. We are pleased to support ThrustMe in the development and demonstration of this propulsion module through the ARTES C&G programme”, says Barnaby Osborne, Small Satellite Technology Coordinator, ESA
Telecommunications and Integrated Applications.
The development of ThrustMe’s NPT30-I2-1U was also supported by the French National Space Agency (CNES) via a project as part of their R&T program. “We are very happy to have supported the in-orbit demonstration of ThrustMe’s iodine electric propulsion system and are very pleased to have helped a French company achieve such a historic milestone.”, says Thomas Liénart, Head of the Propulsion, Pyrotechnics and Aerothermodynamics office at CNES.