African tech firm hopes to power satellites in space

2021-10-26 07:59:11
African tech firm hopes to power satellites in space

A tech firm in South Africa, Hypernova Space Technologies, builds cutting-edge electric propulsion for small satellites.

Cape Town-based company says its thrusters are based on over a decade of research and development in cathodic arc technology.

"Most satellites are simply computers that are tossed out the side of a rocket [that] are tumbling in space," Jonathan Lun told the BBC.

Lun and his company are keen to give these tumbling satellites a little bit more autonomy. The firm has developed a thruster system that could give even the smallest types of satellites the capacity to move around.

The company is hopeful that their technology could be applied to nanosatellites which are small satellites weighing under 10kg and, even applied to the tiniest of them all, the 10 cm cubes known as cubesats.

There are an estimated 3,200 nanosatellites floating around in orbit already, and that number is expected to grow rapidly in the near future.

US aerospace company, SpaceX, alone is in the process of launching a constellation of around 42,000 satellites. But experts are concerned that this explosion in numbers may lead to problems.

Without manoeuvrability - the capacity to change direction - nanosatellites risk colliding with each other, causing space debris which might cause problems for other missions.

Mobility would also make it much easier to retrieve, or dispose of, satellites once their working life was over.

But as nanosatellites are deliberately designed to be small and cheap, any new thruster technology needs to be commercially viable. Around a decade ago, Lun came across an interesting thruster technology that had previously been researched by NASA but never fully pursued.

He found that an electric reaction could be used to vaporise solid metal fuel, a process which then created a jet of fast-moving plasma that could propel a satellite along.

Hypernova's first mission in space will be in early 2022 with EnduroSat, a company based in Bulgaria.

Together, the companies are aiming to assess the performance of the thruster technology in space, including measuring its force and demonstrating that it can successfully change the orbit of a satellite.

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