AMS Spring 2023

Europe’s Water-Fueled Sat Propulsion Will Have 3D Printed Parts

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Thales Alenia Space and Miprons have teamed up to develop a water-powered satellite propulsion system that will incorporate 3D printed components. The two European space companies announced the news in late July 2022 as part of their recently signed agreement that promises a groundbreaking new space technology that will help open up the future of satellites.

Based on Miprons’ proprietary technology patent – filed in 50 countries and issued in Italy – the novel miniaturized, high-thrust thruster will use hydrogen from water, a very cost-effective, green fuel that could replace the current standard propellant for satellites, the highly toxic hydrazine-based fuel.

Characterized by high performance and miniaturized dimensions, the system will rely on an electrolysis process that splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen, and fed into the combustion chamber. Since its only loading water, the system would allow faster maneuvers such as orbit-raising, de-orbiting, and collision avoidance. Moreover, because the design is both compact and scalable, it can be installed on all satellite sizes, from small to large. To date, a prototype of Miprons technology is still under development with a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) between 3 and 4 (TRL 9 being the highest achievement).

Purposed-designed for Thales Alenia Space’s satellites, this powerful and high-efficiency thruster will feature reduced weight and volume. Thales Alenia Space will guide thruster development to achieve a reliable, high-performance propulsion solution for small and medium satellites and support the environmental testing of the engineering model in Italy.

Miprons propulsion systems. Image courtesy of Miprons via LinkedIn.

According to the partnering space firms, the innovative Miprons concept also calls on 3D printing for several components. Although the details of the components have not yet been disclosed, the companies have vast experience with additive manufacturing.

A joint venture between Thales and Leonardo (the major industrial groups in the aerospace industry in Italy and France), Thales Alenia Space has been ripping the benefits of 3D printing for years. It first used additive manufacturing to create antenna brackets for Turkmenistan’s first satellite, the TürkmenÄlem/MonacoSAT, built by Thales Alenia Space in the Cannes Mandelieu Space Center and launched in 2015.

Later, the company created polymer tube supports for its Iridium NEXT constellation of satellites and large 3D printed spacecraft parts for the Koreasat 5A and 7 telecommunication satellites, which orbited in 2017. In 2019, Thales Alenia Space took 3D printing into series production to make components for telecom satellites built on the company’s new all-electric Spacebus Neo platform.

Iridium NEXT The Iridium NEXT satellites being built and assembled at the Thales Alenia Space facility. Image courtesy of Thales Alenia Space.

Discussing the relevance of the upcoming water-powered propulsion system, Miprons founder and CEO Angelo Minotti said that although the project is still in its early stages, it has the potential to define a “new paradigm in space.” The aerospace propulsion expert also added that the team would try to have the system up and running as soon as possible.

Similarly, Thales Alenia Space CEO Massimo Claudio Comparini assured: “We are always willing to tackle new challenges that emphasize the growing strategic importance of the space sector.”

An aerospace industry veteran, Comparini also confirmed that this agreement proves the company’s strategy to play a pivotal role in new space initiatives, reflected in synergies generated with exciting new startups that catalyze the entire space ecosystem.

However, as innovative as the concept is, this is not the first satellite propulsion system that could be fueled by water. In 2020, researchers at The University of Tokyo founded a startup company called Pale Blue which aims to drive the small-satellite space industry by using water-based micro propulsion systems. Similarly, under the 2020 Tipping Point solicitation, NASA saw the creation of water-based propulsion systems called Hydros thrusters. The Hydros approach avoids the risks of sending up a pressurized system, is relatively inexpensive and easy to manufacture, scalable for different satellite sizes, and fuel-efficient.

Water has drawn a lot of attention as fuel for next-generation small satellites, mainly due to its safety and easier handling, as well as possible accessibility to the resource in off-Earth exploration sites, like the Moon, Mars, and asteroids, where it could be mined. With so many advantages, it is highly likely that a water-fueled propulsion system for satellites (and later on, even rockets) could be in demand in the next few years. With several proposals on the way, we could see water-fueled thrusters soon.

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