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The African technology company that wants to fuel space missions

Mr. Lun and his Hypernova Space Technologies, located in Cape Town, want to give these falling spacecraft a little more autonomy. The company has created a propulsion technology that could enable even the tiniest satellites to move about. The company hopes to apply their method to nanosatellites, which are small spacecraft weighing less than 10 kilograms, and even to the smallest of them all, cubesats, which are 10cm cubes.

There are currently roughly 3,200 nanosatellites in orbit, with the number predicted to increase in the near future quickly: SpaceX alone is preparing to launch a network of approximately 42,000 satellites. Experts, on the other hand, are afraid that this surge in population will cause issues. Nanosatellites without maneuverability or the ability to change direction risk colliding with one another, creating space debris that could cause problems for subsequent missions.

It would also be considerably easier to retrieve or dispose of satellites once their useful lives had ended. However, because nanosatellites are intentionally small and inexpensive, any new propulsion technology must be uncomplicated to be commercially feasible. Mr. Lun discovered an intriguing thruster technology a decade ago that Nasa had previously investigated but never fully pursued. He discovered that an electric reaction might be utilized to vaporize solid metal fuel, resulting in a jet of quick-moving plasma capable of propelling a satellite forward.

One major benefit of employing solid fuels in this method is that the material is stable enough to be added to a thruster system prior to launch, eliminating the necessity for any last-minute fueling before putting satellites into space. “They don’t need to worry about filling it up, they do not have to concern about [the material] being hazardous, they don’t have to worry about something shattering and leaking during launch,” says Hypernova’s head of engineering, Stephen Tillemans.

Mr Tillemans confirmed that the company has successfully completed a number of environmental tests, including operating the thruster in a vacuum, at severe temperatures, and with strong vibration. Hypernova’s first space flight will be with EnduroSat, a Bulgarian startup, in early 2022. The businesses are working together to evaluate the thruster technology’s effectiveness in space, particularly measuring its force and proving that it can successfully shift a satellite’s orbit.

Other organizations, such as MIT in the United States and the European Space Agency with its Helicon Plasma Thruster, are also investing in creating the thruster technology that might push small satellites into space. Hypernova is also engaging with other South African space industry companies, such as Stellenbosch University’s Electrical and Electronic Engineering department, which is working on a system that would permit satellites to be able to dock with each other.

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