Watching a live event happening half a world away, or chatting with someone in another country, would not be possible without the hundreds of communications satellites orbiting Earth to relay telecommunications signals electromagnetically.
Propelling the largest of those satellites requires costly and highly toxic jet fuel, while launching smaller satellites requires other liquid fuels that could benefit from improvement.
Israeli startup NewRocket is developing gel propulsion – a cheaper, more environmentally friendly rocket-engine technology offering the same level of performance and control as toxic “legacy fuel” and a better solution for smaller satellites, too.
The new head of this ambitious project is former Israeli fighter pilot Eran Privman, until recently the CEO of the equally ambitious SpaceIL startup that’s developing the first Israeli unmanned spacecraft, intended to land on the moon early next year.
SpaceIL aims to accomplish, on a relatively shoestring budget, a private space mission previously possible only for superpower governments with big pockets. But the price tag still is high and fuel is a factor in that cost.
“SpaceIL uses legacy fuel for the strong propulsion system it needs to land on the moon, so after five years managing SpaceIL I know the problems and costs well,” Privman tells ISRAEL21c.
“From Day 1 the cost of space vehicles has been very expensive, almost prohibiting private people from getting into the industry. NewRocket is trying to bring down the cost of propulsion to much cheaper numbers than in the past 50 years,” he says.
“We do that with a technology developed by Prof. Benny Natan at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology over the last two decades.”
Enabling small satellite industry
Privman, who has a doctorate in neuroscience, explains that Natan’s gel technology fits between the two existing propulsion alternatives: solid fuel, which burns for a single burst to launch rocket ships, and liquid fuel such as hydrazine, typically used to position satellites.
The fast-growing international private communications satellite market is the main focus for NewRocket.
“Companies like OneWeb and SpaceX are building smaller, cheaper satellites that orbit Earth 100 times closer than the big communications satellites so they can provide very fast Internet data services to every cellphone on the globe. We are enablers for this industry,” says Privman.
He notes that smaller satellites need more powerful alternatives than they have now, and makers of the larger billion-dollar communications satellites also seek safer, greener solutions.
“Current liquid fuels used on satellites are made of very hazardous materials because they need to be very powerful,” Privman says. “Therefore, many precautions need to be taken when handling the fuel. For the last decade, the space industry has been searching for something less toxic.”
The NewRocket gel is based on standard liquid kerosene airplane fuel.
“It’s much more ‘green’ than any other material used today in space. The stable gel provides several attributes that offer very cheap, flexible and powerful propulsion. It will open the door for many applications in space,” says Privman.
He estimates that compared to legacy fuel, gel fuel could lower the overall cost of the satellite system and operation by five times. The weight of the gel fuel is similar to liquid fuel but it’s safer to transport.
Deals in the works
Formally founded in 2014, NewRocket graduated from Elbit Systems’ Incubit Technology Ventures incubator two years ago and used the seed money to develop a proof of concept. The company has also won grants from the Israel Innovation Authority and from the Israeli Space Agency.
“Our main work is done at the Technion, where we have laboratory facilities with Professor Natan and his team to mature our technology,” says Privman.
His tenure at SpaceIL gave him broad visibility and contacts in the emerging private space industry (also dubbed “new space”), especially in the United States.
NewRocket has signed contracts with several customers Privman is not at liberty to name, and expects its gel-propulsion technology to be sending satellites into outer space by mid-2020. If all goes according to schedule, the Israeli startup will beat others to that goal.
“For the last 10 years several companies around the world tried to implement gel-propulsion technology and did not succeed so far,” he says. “Two years to get the technology to space is very fast. Usually it takes 10 years.”
Ran Bar Sella, chairman of NewRocket’s board of directors and CEO of Incubit, believes that NewRocket’s main potential lies in the international commercial space industry.
The company also has identified applications of its gel technology for the aviation and power-generation markets.
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