Small satellite propulsion is crucial to the long-term sustainability of space. While the in-orbit debris cleaners, as well as other new capabilities, excite interest, thrusters are critical to maintaining a safe operating environment in space. Onboard thrusters can assist in ensuring that a satellite securely enters its designated orbit, moves out of harm’s way, relocates as the market and mission requirements dictate, and disposes of itself as necessary.
As concerns about congested orbits grow, it’s partially why the emergence of smallsat constellations has generated hundreds of propulsion firms promising more efficient thrusters. According to István Lrincz, co-founder and the president of propulsion firm Morpheus Space, ensuring space sustainability involves giving satellite providers more propulsion options for managing their constellations. Lrincz stated, “You can’t talk about space viability without talking about propulsion.”
He believes that when more satellites are sent into low Earth orbit, it will become increasingly important for smaller spacecraft to be able to navigate within their constellations. Smallsats may need to avoid malfunctioning spaceships and debris, or they may need to move their position to fix a problem elsewhere on the network.
As constellations develop, Lrincz believes operators will be more incentivized to deorbit used satellites faster, allowing them to be substituted more efficiently and maintaining or even improving service levels. In particular, constellations that rely on inter-satellite links would want to cut costs by restricting the number of satellites they launch to space. Still, they risk “severe outages” if a spacecraft goes missing and the network cannot be altered to accommodate, he said. “To repair a failing satellite, you’d have to remove it beforehand, which you obviously want to do as quickly and as efficiently as possible,” he explained.
However, in the absence of universally approved orbital stewardship norms and incentives, he believes that allocating money to expedite a decommissioned satellite’s atmospheric reentry is much more about enhancing an operator’s business image than improving its financial line.
Nonetheless, there are increasing calls for global cooperation to implement common space operations standards. The World Economic Forum is working on a Space Sustainability Rating system that will give enterprises a score based on things like post-mission deorbit strategies and collision avoidance procedures. Missions that voluntarily join the system will receive a certification and rating dependent on their contribution to space sustainability.
While onboard propulsion is standard for huge satellites providing critical services for decades, it is less so for tiny satellites that have recently progressed from experimental to commercial functions.
For phasing, station keeping, and collision avoidance, the satellites which AAC Clyde Space is creating for Eutelsat will utilize onboard propulsion. AAC Clyde Space CEO Luis Gomes remarked, “I think we’ll start witnessing that more and more.” “I believe collision avoidance is going to become a license requirement in the future.”