Magdrive secures seed funding for new propulsion system that could take us to the stars
A startup with a new kind of spacecraft propulsion system could make the interplanetary travel seen in “Star Trek” a reality. Magdrive has just closed a £ 1.4million funding round led by Founders Fund, one of SpaceX’s early investors, backed by Luminous Ventures, 7percent Ventures and Entrepreneur First.
Magdrive is developing a new generation of spacecraft propulsion for small satellites. The startup says the thrust and efficiency of its engine is a “generational leap” ahead of any other electric thruster, opening the space industry to whole new types of missions that were not possible before, without the use of thrusters. much larger, more expensive and heavier chemicals. He claims that its engine would allow fast and affordable interplanetary space travel, as well as very low earth orbit operations. The engine would also make orbital manufacturing much more possible than before.
The existing electrical solutions are very efficient but have a very low thrust. Chemical thrusters have high thrust but are inefficient and are dangerous and expensive to operate. Magdrive claims its engine can deliver both high thrust and high efficiency in one system.
Render of the Magdrive prototype. Image: Magdrive
If that works, the Magdrive engine could allow spaceships to go faster for longer. This could open the industry up to new space missions, like a satellite (or X-wing fighter?) That can perform multiple and rapid maneuvers without worrying about fuel conservation. To do this, satellites need a chemical propellant, which requires a large payload of fuel for launch. A 200 kg satellite would require 50 kg of hydrazine fuel, which would cost £ 1,350,000 in launch weight alone.
Co-founder (and Star Trek fan), Dr Thomas Clayson did a doctorate in plasma physics, working on advanced electromagnetic fields. He realized that this could be the cornerstone in the development of a plasma thruster capable of achieving the accelerations required for interplanetary space travel. After meeting Mark Stokes, a mechanical engineer at Imperial College London with similar dreams of space travel, they decided to build a small-scale satellite thruster.
But Magdrive is not alone. Other companies are developing “Hall Effect Thrusters,” a technology that has been around since the 1960s. Much of the development is geared towards miniaturization and mass reduction, but thrust and efficiency remain the same. These companies include Busek, Exotrail, Apollo Fusion, Enpulsion and NanoAvionics. Meanwhile, large international companies with huge tech portfolios are striving to improve chemical propulsion and make it non-toxic to handle, like Aerojet Rocketdyne and Moog ISP.
They plan to expand their technology to propel larger manned spacecraft (once in orbit) to long-range destinations such as the Moon and Mars. Their system would present a much more affordable way than a chemical or nuclear solution, because of the enormous reduction in fuel costs, and because it is reusable.
Andrew J Scott, Founding Partner, 7percent Ventures: “At 7percent, we are looking for founding teams with ‘moonshot’ ambitions. With Magdrive, it’s not just a metaphor: their revolutionary plasma thruster will soon power satellites, but could take us into deep space in the future. While the UK’s expertise in building satellites is world famous, much less emphasis has been placed on propulsion. In fact, Britain is the only country to have successfully developed and then, in the 1970s, abandoned an indigenous satellite launch capability, which undoubtedly held back the UK space industry. We are therefore delighted to support Magdrive, one of the new generations of British space startups, which has the vision and ambition to become a global company in this booming sector.
The satellite industry is worth $ 5 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to $ 30 billion by 2030, due to the increase in mega-constellations. Some 5,000 satellites are expected to be launched in the next two years and 75% of all companies that launch these satellites have already done something in space.
Magdrive is at the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Center in Harwell, Oxford.