Zenno Astronautics wants to propel spacecraft with electromagnets, not fuel

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It’s easy to think of the satellites as a bunch of mini-moons, orbiting the Earth unhindered and without any (perceptible) movement. But this is not entirely true: satellites and other spacecraft often require constant adjustment of their position in orbit.

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Historically, the aerospace industry has relied on motors or a combination of reaction wheels and magnetic reaction rods to control the attitude, control, and positioning of a spacecraft. But they take up a lot of space and mass and limit the time a spacecraft stays in orbit. in New Zealand Zenno Astronautics came up with an alternative to these heavy and time-limited power plants. The core technology is an electromagnet, which generates a very strong magnetic field that can interact with other magnetic fields – like those on other spacecraft or even on Earth – to create torque.

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The technology has attracted the interest of investors who recently raised a NZ$10.5 million (US$6.585 million) seed round. The round was led by New Zealand venture capital firms GD1 (Global From Day One) and Nuance Connected Capital, with additional participation from Shasta Ventures. NZGCP, K1W1, Austrian billionaire Wolfgang Leitner, Alt Ventures, Enterprise Angels, Arkisys and NZVC.

The funding marks the start of what Zenno hopes will be a landmark 18 months, culminating in their first launch in the fourth quarter of 2023. Around the same time, the company hopes to have a manufacturing plant with a huge production capacity of 1,000 electromagnetic systems per year.

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“We can create a new type of force in space,” founder Max Arshavsky told TechCrunch. “This is really the most fundamental breakthrough we have.”

Zenno Astronautics founder Max Arshavsky

Zenno Astronautics founder Max Arshavsky. Credit: Zenno Astronautics.

Zenno was born just over five years ago when Arshavsky was a student at the University of Auckland, where New Zealand’s first space systems physics program was taking place.

The startup’s first propulsion system, called the Z01 or Supertorquer, is pretty simple, as Arshavsky explains: an electromagnet is created using a coil of wire (also called a solenoid for engineers). This electromagnet generates a strong magnetic field, which then interacts with the Earth’s field, allowing the satellite to target the planet.

Previous attempts to develop this technology have been limited to how much electrical current you can run through a piece of ordinary wire. Zenno’s breakthrough is the use of high-temperature superconducting wire, which has zero resistance to the flow of electric current, so that a huge amount of current can be passed through it. The greater the current, the stronger the magnetic field. The company has also addressed a few other bottlenecks, such as the fact that the wire must operate at around 80 kelvins, or -193 Celsius, which is much colder than the vacuum of space.

As a result, the system, according to the company, takes up 20 times less space than traditional power plants. In addition to guiding satellites, the electromagnetic system can also be used for inter-satellite interactions such as orbital debris cleanup, spacecraft docking, or in-orbit maintenance. Most spacecraft have something that can interact with an electromagnet, like magnetic bars, so the technology is compatible with older spacecraft even if they aren’t equipped with Zenno systems, Arshavsky said.

The company is also working to use its technology to protect the interior of the spacecraft – both crewed and cargo – from the massive amount of radiation in outer space. The magnetic field can be used to deflect radiation from charged particles, which can extend the life of a spacecraft in orbit or protect the crew. This is a key problem that needs to be solved for manned flights to deep space, including to Mars.

Zenno Astronautics Z01

Z01 by Zenno Astronautics. Credit: Zenno Astronautics.

Magnetic fields in a vacuum don’t act differently, which means the company was able to test the system here on Earth. The next step is space travel. Zenno plans to launch a full-scale attitude control system in the fourth quarter of 2023 with the participation of the Italian company D-Orbit aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9.

“Our technology readiness level is currently somewhere around six according to the NASA scale, that is, we checked all the systems and subsystems in the laboratory, and the next stage for us is testing in orbit, ”said Arshavsky. Prior to launch, the company is focusing on creating a spaceflight version of the technology that “was designed to be launched on a rocket. [be] shake it hard and then work reliably in space,” he added. This system will be provided to D-Orbit sometime in the middle of 23 so that it can be integrated and then shipped to the US for launch.

Although a year and a half is left before the first orbital test of the system, the company has shown sufficient interest in its technology and plans to establish the aforementioned large-scale manufacturing enterprise.

“Currently, we have great ties with the industry […] and we want to make sure that we are not taken by surprise,” Arshavsky explained.

The company has just signed a third sale agreement with a February 2024 delivery date, so the manufacturing facility should be up and running by then. Zenno has firm sales agreements with US satellite owners and operators worth “multi-million dollars” in addition to constellation commitments under development. Although Arshavsky did not specify the names of the customers or the size of the constellation, Zenno is clearly preparing to move forward at full speed in the next few years.

Zenno will also use a portion of the seed funding to develop its team, which currently has 11 full-time employees. At the time of the investment, the company had only four or five full-time employees, so the headcount had already doubled in a short period. Zenno also appointed Peter Crabtree, founder of the New Zealand Space Agency, as chairman of the board. Luca Rossettini, CEO and founder of D-Orbit, will also serve as an advisor to the board of directors.

Credit: techcrunch.com /

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