Accion Systems has big plans for its tiny thrusters.
The company announced in February that it had completed its latest funding round, raising $11 million to expand the company's productions and staff. The latest funding, which was co-led by Boeing Horizon X ventures and Shasta Ventures, brings Accion Systems' total funding to $36 million since the company's start in 2014, $14 million of which is from contracts with NASA and the United States Department of Defense.
"At the size of a postage stamp, our propulsion system is rewriting the rules of smallsat navigation and maneuverability," Accion CEO Natalya Bailey said in a press statement. "We're excited to ramp up production and offer our clients benefits such as extending mission lifetime, station-keeping and deorbiting capabilities."
The Boston-based company was cofounded by MIT graduates Natalya Bailey and Louis Perna, and its bread-and-butter technology is a dime-sized ion propulsion thruster called TILE (Tiled Ionic Liquid Electrospray). TILE is an efficient and lightweight alternative to the cold gas propulsion systems that power many scientific satellites today, Accion representatives say.
The company first launched its thrusters aboard a student-designed cubesat in November 2018 and says it has a number of future launches planned for 2020 and early 2021. But before that, the company will be using its new funding to further streamline its TILE system, Perna, who is Accion's chief scientist, told Space.com.
"The Series B will be used to take the TILE technology to a cost-effective and easily reproducible product for government and commercial customers," Perna said.
Those future plans include work with NASA as part of the agency's Tipping Point partnership for moon and Mars technologies; Accion was one of 14 companies selected for that program in October 2019. As part of this program, Accion has been tasked with helping NASA come up with a follow-on to the agency's MarCO (Mars Cube One) cubesats. The twin MarCO craft, NASA's first interplanetary cubesats, accompanied the agency's Insight lander to Mars, helping to relay data during InSight's entry, descent and landing back to Earth. Accion's job will be to figure out how to replace those cubesats' cold gas propulsion systems with its ion-propulsion system instead.
"Accion has been contracted by NASA through a Tipping Point award to build and test our electrospray propulsion system on a 6U commercial satellite to demonstrate the same or better propulsive capabilities as the cold gas thrusters used on the MarCO mission, but with a significantly lower size, weight and power," Perna told Space.com. (One cubesat "U," or unit, is a cube 4 inches, or 10 centimeters, on a side.) "The TILE propulsion system will be validated through a series of ground tests and will culminate in an on-orbit demonstration in LEO [low Earth orbit]."
In addition to its work in the Tipping Point program, Accion is continuing work on several other, undisclosed, DoD contracts for 2020 that will entail working on the company's "next-generation product," Perna said.
Outside of its contract work, Ferno said, Accion also has several launches planned with academic institutions like MIT and the Irvine CubeSat STEM program, the latter being the same group Accion first launched its thrusters with. These projects are meant to teach students how to design and launch their own 3U cubesats and give them the opportunity to do real science in space. The fact that high school students today have the opportunity to complete projects like this as a homework assignment is something that still blows Bailey away, she previously told Space.com.
With all those developments underway, Perna said the company is not too far from one of its biggest goals: reaching Mars using its thrusters.
"[Reaching Mars is] not so far away," Perna told Space.com. "The MarCO mission was the first time cubesats left Earth's orbit, and they were successful. Pending our ability to prove we can perform the same propulsion mission over the next year with NASA, the TILE system is ready to bring the next cubesats out into the solar system and beyond."
Correction: This story was updated April 6 to correct the spelling of Louis Perna's name
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