Article Source: IMechE

A concept image showing the Konnect satellite in orbit (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)
A concept image showing the Konnect satellite in orbit (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)

Thales Alenia Space has claimed a “major new manufacturing milestone” for the UK space sector after unveiling the first all-electric satellite propulsion module designed and built in the country.

The xenon propulsion system (XPS), which will use energy collected from solar panels to accelerate xenon gas from an electric thruster, was designed in the industry hub of Harwell in Oxfordshire and assembled in Belfast.

Electric propulsion using xenon is five- to 10-times more efficient than traditional bipropellant systems, Thales Alenia CEO Ben Olivier told Professional Engineering. The XPS produces “much lower” thrust levels, therefore taking longer to complete similar journeys, but its improved efficiency means less fuel is required.

“Progressively, we’re seeing electric propulsion become the new normal of propulsion in space,” said Olivier. “What it allows is much more freedom and much more mass for the payload on the satellite.”

The lower fuel requirement also means cheaper launchers are suitable, helping to reduce average mission costs by an estimated 20%.

Pressurised at 100-120 bar – roughly equivalent to 100-120 atmospheric pressures – the xenon nonetheless causes some challenges due to the resultant 1.8 tonne total weight. “There’s quite a lot of complexity in managing the propellant, supporting all that during launch and maintaining the integrity of that system,” said Olivier.

The 1.6m by 3.6m XPS will lift a Eutelsat telecoms satellite from the orbit provided by its launch vehicle to its geostationary orbit at roughly 36,000km above the equator, before maintaining its orbit for at least 15 years.

Pioneering innovation

The Franco-Italian firm Thales Alenia Space and official organisations hailed the propulsion system’s significance for the UK’s growing ‘New Space’ sector.

“Pioneering innovations like this all electric propulsion module will improve access to space, but also deliver new jobs and growth on the ground,” said UK Space Agency chief executive Dr Graham Turnock. “We’re working with industry to grow our share of the global space market to 10% by 2030, and the Thales Alenia Space facility in Belfast is an excellent example of UK capability.”

“The UK space industry is a key pillar in the Government’s industrial strategy for economic growth in the UK and the delivery of this module is a tangible example of the progress of that strategy,” added Olivier.

The first XPS module will travel from Belfast to Thales Alenia’s French operation in Cannes for integration into Eutelsat’s Konnect satellite before testing and launch.

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