U-M’s Space Physics Research Laboratory to Test Orbion’s Plasma Thrusters

The University of Michigan’s Space Physics Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor is working with Houghton’s Orbion Space Technology to build and test the first flight units of the electrical power processor used to drive Orbion’s plasma thruster for small satellites.
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Orbion satellite with thruster functioning
U-M’s Space Physics Research Laboratory and Orbion Space Technology are building flight units of the electrical power processor used to drive Orbion’s plasma thruster for small satellites. // Image courtesy of Orbion Space Technology

The University of Michigan’s Space Physics Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor is working with Houghton’s Orbion Space Technology to build and test the first flight units of the electrical power processor used to drive Orbion’s plasma thruster for small satellites.

The Orbion PPU is an electrical component that transmits the energy harvested from spacecraft solar panels to the plasma thruster, where the energy is used to exhaust a beam of ions to create a gentle yet efficient thrust.

“Plasma thrusters are the most efficient propulsion systems available for smallsat applications, but historically they have been too expensive for commercial use and they take too long to build,” says Brad King, CEO of Orbion. “We look forward to working with SPRL to pioneer new design and manufacturing techniques that will industrialize space propulsion systems to allow smallsat operators to maximize their investments — and ultimately, their long-distance missions.”

King says Orbion and UM-SPRL will implement an architecture that takes advantage of recent advances in high-quality automotive electrical components to dramatically reduce the cost and complexity of space power systems. Not only will this reduce the cost of Orbion’s PPU by 20 times, but it also will allow Orbion to mass-produce its plasma propulsion system using assembly-line manufacturing techniques.

He says with the PPU design and prototype units already developed and tested extensively by Orbion in space-simulation facilities, UM-SPRL will qualify the Orbion PPU for use in the most rigorous space environments and will supply the first units that will propel Orbion systems to Earth orbit, the moon, and beyond.

Founded in 1946 at the Ann Arbor campus, SPRL has a history of building electronics for interplanetary probes to Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, with several Mars instrumentation projects ongoing for both NASA and the European Space Agency.

“UM-SPRL specializes in advancing new technologies and demonstrating their capabilities in extreme environments, including space,” says Patrick McNally, managing director of UM-SPRL. “We have complete facilities and personnel for the design, fabrication, and qualification of space flight hardware. The collaboration with Orbion is part of our mission to support Michigan companies and is a continuation of the work we have done for over 72 years.”

Orbion is an outgrowth of technology developed in recent years at Michigan Technological University in Houghton in the Upper Peninsula.

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