South African Company Seeks to Develop Innovative Satellite Thrusters

South Africa-based company Hypernova Space Technologies is looking to help satellites develop autonomy in space. To this end, the company has developed a thruster system that could give miniature types of satellites manoeuvrability. According to Mr Lun, the company’s owner, “most satellites are simply computers that are tossed out the side of a rocket [that] are tumbling in space”.

The company believes that nanosatellites and CubeSats can leverage their technology. This is interesting as about 3,200 nanosatellites are floating around in orbit already. Furthermore, the figure is expected to multiply soon – SpaceX alone is in the process of launching a constellation of about 42,000 satellites. This rapid proliferation of satellites may increase the risk of collision between satellites, especially if they lack manoeuvrability. Furthermore, satellite mobility would make it easier to retrieve or dispose of satellites once their working life is over.

To combat this, the company is utilising new fuel technology. It intends to use electric reactions to vaporise solid metal fuel, creating a jet of fast-moving plasma that could propel a satellite along. In addition, a significant advantage to using solid fuels this way is that the material would be stable enough to add to a thruster system before launch. As a result, this removes the need for any last-minute fuelling before sending satellites off into space. “They don’t have to worry about filling it up, they don’t have to worry about [the material] being toxic, they don’t have to worry about it during launch, something breaking and leaking,” adds Stephen Tillemans, the head of engineering at Hypernova.

Consequently, Mr Tillemans confirms the company has successfully run several environmental tests. These include running the thruster in a vacuum, in extreme temperatures, and with high vibration. Hypernova’s first mission in space will be in early 2022 with EnduroSat, a company based in Bulgaria. Together, the companies seek to assess the performance of the thruster technology in space, including measuring its force and demonstrating that it can successfully change the orbit of a satellite.

Furthermore, Hypernova is collaborating with other South African space industry players. Foremost among them is the Electrical and Electronic Engineering department at Stellenbosch University. The university is also currently developing a technology that would allow satellites to dock with each other.

Mr Lun is confident of the possibility of scaling up Hypernova’s thruster technology. This is to ensure its application on bigger satellites and more ambitious missions. Furthermore, he believes that using metal as fuel will facilitate more extensive opportunities for the industry. This is as thrusters could potentially leverage substances found in space.