It’s easy to think of satellites as a bunch of mini-moons orbiting the Earth seamlessly and without any (noticeable) movement. But that’s not quite right: Satellites and other spacecraft often require fairly continuous adjustments to their positions in orbit.
Historically, the aerospace industry has relied on thrusters, or a combination of reaction wheels and magnetic torsion bars, to control a spacecraft’s attitude, control, and positioning. But these take up a lot of space and mass and limit how long a spacecraft can stay in orbit. New Zealand Zenno Astronautics has devised an alternative to these heavy and time-limited propulsion systems. The core technology is an electromagnet that generates a very strong magnetic field, which can interact with other magnetic fields — such as those on other spacecraft, or even Earth’s — to generate torque.
The technology caught the interest of investors, who recently contributed to a NZ$10.5 million ($6.585 million) seed round. New Zealand-based VC firms GD1 (Global From Day One) and Nuance Connected Capital led the round, with additional participation from Shasta Ventures, NZGCP, K1W1, Austrian billionaire Wolfgang Leitner, Alt Ventures, Enterprise Angels, Arkisys and NZVC.
The funding marks the beginning of what Zenno hopes will be an 18-month milestone, culminating in their first launch in the fourth quarter of 2023. By the same time, the company hopes to have a manufacturing facility operating with a massive production capacity of 1,000 electromagnetic systems. per year.
“We can generate a new type of power in space,” founder Max Arshavsky told gotechbusiness.com. “That is really the most fundamental breakthrough we have.”
Zenno started a little over five years ago, when Arshavsky was a student at the University of Auckland, home of New Zealand’s first space systems program, where he studied physics.
The startup’s first drive system, called Z01 or the Supertorquer, is pretty simple, as Arshavsky explains: An electromagnet is made using a coil of wire (it’s also called a solenoid, for the engineers out there). That electromagnet generates a strong magnetic field, which then interacts with Earth’s, allowing the satellite to align itself relative to the planet.
Previous efforts to develop this technology have been limited by the amount of electrical current you can push through a length of conventional wire. Zenno’s breakthrough is the use of a high-temperature superconducting wire that has no resistance to the flow of electrical current, so a huge amount of current can be pushed through it. The higher the amount of current, the stronger the magnetic field. The company has also fixed a few other bottlenecks, such as the fact that the wire has to operate at about 80 Kelvin or -193 Celsius, which is much colder than the vacuum of space.
The result is a system that, according to the company, takes up 20 times less space than traditional propulsion systems. In addition to targeting satellites, the electromagnetic system can also be used for interactions between satellites, such as cleaning up orbital debris, building spacecraft or maintaining in orbit. Most spacecraft have something that can interact with an electromagnet, such as magnetic coupling bars, so the technology is compatible with older spacecraft even if they aren’t equipped with Zenno’s systems, Arshavsky said.
The company is also working to use its technology to protect the interiors of spacecraft – manned or cargo – from the vast amount of radiation in space. The magnetic field could be used to deflect radiation from charged particles, which could extend the life of a spacecraft in orbit or protect its crew. This is an important problem to be solved for manned missions in deep space, including to Mars.
Magnetic fields don’t work any differently in a vacuum, so that means the company has been able to test the system here on Earth. The next step is to take it to space. Zenno aims to launch a full attitude control system in the fourth quarter of 2023, with Italian company D-Orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission.
“Our technology readiness level is currently around six according to the NASA scalewhich means we’ve tested all the systems and subsystems in the lab, and the next phase for us is testing things in orbit,” Arshavsky said. Until launch, the company is focused on building a spaceflight-capable version of the technology, one that “is designed to go up with a rocket, [be] violently shaken and then operate reliably in space,” he added. That system will be delivered to D-Orbit sometime in mid-23 so it can be integrated and then shipped to the US for launch.
Despite being a year and a half away from the system’s first orbital test, the company has grown enough interest in its technology that it plans to set up its aforementioned large-scale manufacturing facility.
“We currently have a lot of grip on the industry […] and we want to make sure we don’t get caught off guard,” Arshavsky explained.
The company has just signed a third sales agreement with a delivery date of February 2024, so the manufacturing facility should be up and running by then. Zenno has firm sales agreements with US-based satellite owners and operators, in the amount of “several million dollars”, in addition to a constellation commitment in the pipeline. Although Arshavsky did not specify the name of the clients or the size of the constellation, Zenno is clearly preparing to go full steam ahead in the coming years.
Zenno will also use some of the seed funding to grow its team, which currently consists of 11 full-time employees. At the time of the investment, the company only had four or five full-time employees, so the workforce has already doubled in a short period of time. Zenno has also appointed Peter Crabtree, the founder of the New Zealand Space Agency, as chairman of the board. Luca Rossettini, CEO and founder of D-Orbit, also comes in as an advisor to the board.