Accion Systems, a Space Propulsion Startup Company, Is Bringing Ion Engines to Masses

Accion Systems will start taking orders for their micro ion engines meant to be used on small satellites. Although the company is in business for around three years they only sold their microscopic ion engines to the US government and their research partners. Now, they will start taking orders from private companies starting a new era of space flights.

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Image courtesy of Accion Systems

Their ion engine technology was developed at MIT for years, and the final product is an engine the size of a coin that has 480 tiny nozzles, which direct propellant out of the engine with the assistance of capillary action. Capillary action is natural phenomena that allow liquid to flow into narrow spaces without the need of gravity or any other external force. You may have seen this if you ever donated blood because capillary action allows blood to move up within the tube and travel to blood bags. Another example of this phenomenon is when using tissues to clean spilled water, water is moving through the tissue by capillary action.

Last August, Accion performed a real life conditions demonstration in space, and Dr. Natalia Brinker, co-founder and CEO of Accion claims that in-orbit demonstration matched performance they achieved in the lab.

The problem with ion engines was their size; they were too big for commercial use in small satellites. They were using large pumps to funnel the propellant into the engine, but Accion dealt with it by creating new small propulsion systems for their engines that are way smaller in comparison to systems used before.

This announcement is very important because, until now, small satellites couldn’t be equipped with propulsion engines making them vulnerable to micrometeorites, shortened their orbit time; even Earth’s atmosphere that can only be found in traces at the altitude that small satellites are orbiting could be strong enough to make the satellite lose its orbit and burn up in the atmosphere.

Now, those problems could be solved with the help of this miniature engine, making satellite’s life span longer and allowing cheaper and more frequent launches.

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Image courtesy of Accion Systems

Electric ion propulsion is considered to be the next big thing in space technology. It differs from standard chemical propulsion because it doesn’t offer a huge, but short-lived burst of power; instead, ion engine emits a small amount of thrust that enables for a slow but steady acceleration. Over time, the speed of the ion engine-propelled craft can achieve stunning values, and that feat is crucial for long space flights, like NASA’s mission to Pluto. On top of that, ion engines don’t need huge amounts of fuel to function. Because of their slow but steady acceleration, fuel consumption is minimal because when in a vacuum you don’t need much fuel in order to accelerate or maintain your speed, there is simply not enough friction in space to slow you down.

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Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is a perfect example of the power of ion engine technology. In 2015, Dawn has achieved a change in its velocity (acceleration, in other words) of around 38,000 kilometers (23,600 miles) per hour, since it launched way back in 2007. As you can see, this technology could be one of the missing links that will enable humans to throw the shackles of our Solar System and travel to the Stars.

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