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Developing new electric plasma propulsion system for small satellites


How Magdrive collaborated with the University of Southampton to accelerate the development of revolutionary space propulsion systems

Founded in 2019, Magdrive’s vision is to become the go-to propulsion system for satellites and deep space transport, and be the catalyst for a new space age.

Magdrive is focused on pioneering a breakthrough in propulsion technology, reducing the required propellant for extended satellite lifetimes and offering the high efficiency of electric propulsion with a much higher thrust. This will lower the barrier of small and micro-satellites to entering the space-based service industry requiring high delta-V (velocity increment), making new missions possible and allowing for a new wave of inventive UK companies to drive innovation.

State of the art testing to commercialise new technology

To accelerate the development of its revolutionary space propulsion systems for small satellites, Magdrive signed up to SPRINT to collaborate with the University of Southampton on testing the company’s prototype system. The aim of this project was to help Magdrive to develop an in-space demonstration model and commercialise the new technology for the global space sector.

Magdrive worked with the University of Southampton to test and develop prototypes for a new electric plasma space propulsion system. The system offers significantly improved thrust compared to other electric propulsion systems, while offering high efficiencies that chemical propulsion systems lack. This allows for extended small satellite lifetimes and for new mission types such as rendezvousing with larger satellites, constellation management, satellite refuelling and deorbiting for satellites of all sizes.

The current prototype thruster hardware was tested using the University of Southampton’s vacuum chamber and optimised with the aid of expertise in magneto-hydrodynamics (MHD) simulations.

The University provided Magdrive with expert capabilities including:
• David Fearn Electric Propulsion Laboratory and Thermal Vacuum Test Facility
• µ-VIS High Resolution X-Ray Computed Tomography (CT)
• Spacecraft Environmental Vibration Test Facility
• Non-equilibrium plasma simulation
• IRIDIS 5 High Performance Computing System

Benefits achieved through the SPRINT project

• Much closer working with the University of Southampton, conducting tests at Magdrive’s new facilities, helping the company to develop new diagnostics and a joint space mission planned for the end of 2021
• Secured £250,000 in public R&D funding (i.e. grants) and £1.4 million in investment, with ~50% originating from outside the UK
• Development of several joint grant applications to the UK Space Agency including currently developing a General Support Technology Programme (GSTP) application for the UK Space Agency and European Space Agency
• Accelerated product development by six months and reduced risk due to access to test facilities and simulation code
• Creation of nine engineering and scientist jobs at Magdrive
• A resulting agreement has been signed to share research capabilities in a long-term research partnership

Novel opportunity to collaborate with academic expertise

Mark Stokes, CEO of Magdrive

Mark Stokes, CEO of Magdrive said: “As a new start-up company, we became aware of the opportunity of the SPRINT programme funding through networking at the Westcott Business Incubation Centre. SPRINT offers a truly amazing opportunity that we didn’t expect to exist. We didn’t have the plasma simulation expertise, or the vacuum facilities that the University can deliver and they’ve been demonstrably interested in the success of the project.

“The support of the University and SPRINT provided us with external validation, higher reliability and trust that are hugely important, both in terms of credibility when securing further grant funding and talking to potential future investors, but also in helping us to roll out our product roadmap, design the next prototype and drive towards a commercial system.

“Our time working with the SPRINT programme gave us insights into the technology we couldn’t have made alone, and helped us to secure our seed round with Founders Fund.”

Long-term research partnership realised

The SPRINT project challenged the technological and research strengths of both the University of Southampton and Magdrive. The University has now performed a preliminary test of a combined propulsion system using Magdrive’s Power Processing Unit (PPU) and its own thruster. These preliminary tests were successful and have enabled the partnership to identify the commercial potential of this technology. Magdrive and the University of Southampton have planned a joint in-orbit demonstration planned later in 2021.

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