Vermont U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy toured a company in South Burlington today that will soon literally launch a new satellite propulsion system.
It’s a rectangular tube about two feet long and six inches square. Within, there will be electronics for whatever the satellite may be used for from telecommunications to imaging. At one end is a small cartridge with 3 tubes. That is the propulsion system that will help stabilize the satellite and control its reentry, if needed, into the atmosphere.
The technology is new and it’s being created at a start-up in Vermont. Senator Patrick Leahy toured Benchmark Space Systems on Thursday as the company prepares for the first launch of its product. Matt Walton explains some of the tests. “With this in the vacuum chamber it’s sitting in we’re able to simulate a space environment and fire our thrusters.”
Senator Leahy: “So you can get a complete vacuum in this?”
Walton: “Very close.”
Benchmark uses 3D printing technology. All propellants are non-toxic and remain inert until triggered when the satellite is in orbit. Senator Leahy, a Democrat, was impressed. “What they’re doing here couldn’t have been dreamed of 20 years ago, 25 years ago. I mean it’s like when the Apollo went up all the computer systems in Houston, on board it and everything else far less computing power far less than what I’ve got here in this phone. You know what you’re doing here is state-of-the-art. It’s innovative and it’ll be standard in just a few years.”
Company co-founder and CEO Ryan McDevitt did his graduate studies at UVM where he worked on a NASA-funded project to develop small satellite propulsion. By the time he graduated in 2014 a commercial market had begun to emerge and he started the company. “The satellite’s going to hitch a ride into space on a like a SpaceX rocket or a ULA (United Launch Alliance) rocket, one of the big traditional rockets you’ve seen. But once it’s in space you want that satellite to be able to move around and that’s what we do. So we build the whole system. It’s going to have the fuel tanks. It’s going to have the nozzle. It’s going to have the valves all the electronics. So it’ll be a complete system that’ll allow the satellite to move around once it’s in space,”
Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies helps startups across Vermont find capital. President David Bradbury said the small satellite market is growing and needs micro propulsion systems. “Space is quite literally the final frontier for low cost single or limited function cube satellites to deliver health care information, to deliver internet, to deliver weather across the globe. And what specifically interested us was having a non-toxic, low cost, very safe system that could be utilized in a variety of cases in this burgeoning market of cheap satellites.”
The target minimum size for a satellite using Benchmark’s propulsion system is the size of a loaf of bread.
The first launch of a Benchmark propulsion system will occur from Vandenberg Air Force Base in the first quarter of 2020 in partnership with Firefly Aerospace.