5 mins read 30 Jun 2021

Valiant Space receives grant to prove feasibility of non-toxic thruster

Valiant Space has received a grant from the Australian Space Agency to develop their non-toxic thruster to space readiness. The $200,000 grant will see Valiant partner with Australian space services company Skykraft to develop the thruster for future space use. 

The Skykraft satellite that will have a Valiant thruster onboard as part of the FAST demonstrator mission. Credit - SkyKraft

As part of the Moon to Mars Initiative funded by the Federal Government, a number of Australian space-based projects have received funding to demonstrate the feasibility of their ideas and technology. 

Queensland based Valiant Space has received a grant that will support the development of their non-toxic thruster that has the potential to provide instantaneous thrust without the challenges that current chemical systems face. Earlier this year, Valiant commenced testing of their bi-propellant, non-toxic engine, this latest announcement is the next step in their development. 

“We are very excited, this is really a huge moment for Valiant. It's a really big first step on our journey to validating our technology and our thrusters for spaceflight to eventually sell those as products on the market. So being able to have that development funded in this way is super exciting and we really appreciate this opportunity that the agency is giving us with this grant,” said Valiant CEO and Co-Founder, Andrew Uscinski. 

The funding will be used to complete a feasibility study and de-risk critical elements of the proposed mission. This will involve testing and qualifying the thruster for space flight. 

“A Technology Readiness Level (TRL), is a level that's given by the European Space Agency and NASA and is used to identify the degree of completeness or the heritage behind a product or a piece of spacecraft hardware, so something that's flown into space many, many times, that's a TRL nine, and something that's just literally on a piece of napkin as an idea that’s a TRL of one,” said Uscinski. 

“So within that spectrum, we're going to be at TRL six, which means that we're going to be pretty much as far as we can get on ground before actually doing the flight demonstration mission.”

Valiant will be working with Skykraft, who are an Australian space services company that specialises in the design, manufacture and operation of SmallSat constellations. Skykraft are aiming to have their foundation constellation, developed for space-based air traffic management services, operational by 2023. 

“It's critical to validate that product in the space environment, and as such, you need to do a demonstration mission. Obviously [our thruster is] going to require something, it’s not just the product you need. You need that framework of a satellite bus around it, and so Skykraft here is really playing the part of a project partner, helping us to have a means to get to orbit,” said Uscinski about the partnership. 

Mark Skidmore, Skykraft Executive Chair, said "Skykraft are pleased to be playing a role in building the Australia space ecosystem with companies like Valiant.  Having a critical mass of world class capabilities in Australia will enable Australia to become a global space power.”

Fast Acting Space Transportation (FAST)

An artists impression of the Skykraft satellite in space - Credit - Skykraft

In space thrusters are an important part of any space vehicle and are required for a number of reasons. When it comes to satellites they are essential for orbit insertion, maneuvering such as collision avoidance or orbit maintenance and as we get more congested in space, for de-orbiting. In recent times, thrust power has also become relevant in terms of sustainability practices - such as deorbiting requirements imposed by authorities that proactively help reduce the amount of space junk in orbit, once the satellite has completed its mission. 

Typically the thrusters are chemical, which brings a number of challenges, such as highly toxic fuels and large fuel tank requirements, or electric. Electric or ION thrusters, negate the use of toxic fuels and require smaller fuel tanks, but don’t have the same instantaneous thrust of chemical systems. The Valiant non-toxic thruster hopes to bring the best of both worlds.

“Our thrusters are high thrust chemical propulsion thrusters, so very different to the kind of performance that you see out of electric propulsion. [So] you've got a much higher thrust, which means you can actually do very quick maneuvers, adjust your satellites position in orbit at sort  of a flick of a switch, and do that reliably and repeatedly, and so that is our fast acting capability,” said Uscinski. 

“[These] thrusters will provide high-thrust, low-cost, and non-toxic propulsion options for the small satellite market,” added Michael Douw, Valiant Space CTO and co-founder. 

What is next for Valiant?

The bi-propellant thruster during testing. Valiant Space hope that this new thruster design will appear to small commercial satellite companies looking for an alternative to hydrazine and ion based thrusters. Credit - Valiant Space

The excitement is definitely building at Valiant, as the concept is gaining support. 

“This is not just a win for Valiant, but also for Australia,” said Uscincki. “In-space thrusters have proven crucial to the success of other space-faring nations, so growing this capability here in Australia will unlock a lot of opportunity for our space industry.”

From here will be a feasibility study that will investigate and de-risk crucial elements of the proposed mission, including testing and qualifying Valiant Space’s thruster to prepare it for spaceflight. Additionally, the study will develop concepts for deep-space missions using the sovereign Skykraft platform technology out to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

“We’ve obviously got a lot of work ahead of us, so the end goal of the project is to mature the Valiant space thruster up to a TRL of 6. Over the next 10 months of the actual project we're essentially going to be starting by developing what’s known as a development model, which will be the workhorse engine that we will be testing and validating,” said Uscinski.

“[We are] well-positioned now to execute on all those ambitions and goals that we set ourselves,” Uscinski concluded.