Satellites need propulsion when in space to maintain their orbit and avoid collisions with other satellites or space debris. However, as the volume of small satellites is increasing exponentially, potential collisions will become much more frequent. Current electrical propulsion systems are no longer fit for purpose for obstacle avoidance, as they lack the thrust required to avoid last minute collisions. Similarly, chemical thrusters are too large to form part of a small satellite bus and are also inefficient in terms of their operating lifespan.
Simultaneously, there are novel business models and space missions which are held back by current limits of propulsion. Such as satellite servicing, orbital assembly and asteroid mining. A breakthrough in propulsion is needed to enable this new era of space.
The Magdrive, an electrical propulsion system that is more than 10 times as powerful as any other electrical system, without compromising its efficiency, seeks to address these two key issues.
The Magdrive uses a unique pulsed power system to superheat its solid fuel to temperatures over hundred times that of a rocket, forming a plasma. This plasma is then confined and directed using electromagnets, ejected as a high velocity plasma exhaust, creating thrust.
This solution comes at the right time for the space era. We are at the inflection point and the number of spacecraft is going to rocket up (no pun intended) massively in the next few years. This sadly means space debris will exponentially increase leading to a dramatic increase in potential collisions. We need to improve on our propulsion capabilities to avoid these costly collisions.
Improved propulsion is also the key to unlocking the next stage of humans in space. Advanced missions in orbital assembly, servicing and manufacturing require a propulsion system that is fit for purpose; powerful, efficient small and nimble.
Where did the idea originate?
Dr Thomas Clayson completed his PhD in plasma laboratory astrophysics at Imperial in the Plasma Physics group, supervised by Dr Francisco Suzuki-Vidal and Prof Sergey Lebedev. His PhD and work in nuclear fusion, enable him to apply his specialised knowledge of plasma physics to develop a unique, high performing, pulsed plasma thruster. He originally conceptualised an electrical launch rocket that could take a 25% payload to Saturn in 3 months! He presented his vision to Mark over dinner, and over the course of the night agreed that while the technology doesn’t exist to make this work yet, a lot of this can be first developed for use on present day satellites – trialling the technology on a smaller scale first.
How did the team meet?
Tom and Mark met at Imperial. There was a networking event at Imperial College Business School and Mark and Thomas connected over a mutual desire to start a business related to space. They kept throwing ideas at each other for the next six months, until Tom pitched his Saturn-bound electrical launch rocket to Mark. Mark suggested they dream slightly closer to home and apply the same principles to small satellites in Low Earth Orbit. Once they proved the technology is successful at this size, then they can look to scale up the technology for manned space craft.
Do you have any advisors? If so how did they get involved?
We have multiple advisors who got involved in different ways. Mike Curtis Rouse and Chris Hobbs helped us identify the issues in the space industry we could solve with our technology. Dr Simon Bland and Dr Aaron Knoll are Imperial College professors, who provided valuable connections with the industry and technical advice. Lastly, Essa Salut, who helped trained us how to present our idea and pitch.
Where are you now and where do you plan to be?
We have raised enough funding from a mixture of VCs and grants to get our Magdrive to an In Orbit Demonstration. This will prove the commercial viability of our Magdrive to potential customers.
What’s been your biggest success so far?
We are proud to have grown to a team of 12 talented people who share our ambition to revolutionise the space industry. We’ve built an electrical propulsion development and testing lab. From the lab, we’ve built integrated prototypes to debug most of the technology. Our first space mission is launching in November, which is very exciting for us to watch our prototype go up into orbit!
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Learning how to focus our idea on the issues faced by the space industry, while still enabling those future goals. All technology takes longer than you expect to build, develop and test.
World events has also been challenging to our business. Covid has led to a global microchip shortage. Brexit has created another level of bureaucracy in terms of importing and exporting components and has contracted the talent pool from which we can recruit from.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Talk to your customers, find out what issues they are facing. Look at the current solutions that they are relying on. If the solutions can be improved, then start from there. And build prototypes, if you only have a little money, build component or semi-functional prototypes; you will learn a lot with each prototype.