By Richard Tyler,
Published by The Times, 11 November 2022
Operation Get It Up, a tiny plasma-based power system providing propulsion to a small cube satellite, will sit on top of a Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket due to be launched next month.
It has been designed by engineers at the space start-up Magdrive, based at the Harwell science campus in south Oxfordshire. Fans of the Iain M Banks sci-fi series about a utopia of various humanoid races, called The Culture, will recognise that the nomenclature echoes that given by Banks to the AI minds driving his starships.
Operation Get It Up’s successor, So Much for Subtlety, will be five times as powerful. In the pipeline is Look What You Made Me Do, which should be five times more powerful again, firing 100 plasma shots a second and shifting ever heavier satellites and service vehicles around.
Thomas Clayson, a plasma physicist who turns 31 on Sunday, and his co-founder, Mark Stokes, 32, a mechanical and machine-learning engineer, believe that their hardware can support even bigger spacecraft. One of the discussions they are having is with Rolls-Royce about using small nuclear reactors to power future “mega-Magdrive” thrusters, which could propel asteroid-mining vehicles.
It all feels quite a leap from the small, 1,400 sq ft engineering lab that the 11-strong team occupies. It is decked out with the compulsory Lego Star Wars spaceships — a Millennium Falcon sits on one side, half finished — alongside expensive pieces of kit that allow them to replicate the vacuum of space.
Magdrive is one of a growing number of UK space start-ups that are gaining momentum as the cost of launching craft into space falls and commercial interest grows. It is focused on improving the propulsion systems used by spacecraft when they are in space. Chemical propulsion is still required to generate the lift to leave the Earth’s orbit. Once there, though, either chemical or electric thrusters are typically used to help craft and satellites to maintain their orbit, move around and, increasingly, avoid collisions.
The company’s thrusters draw in power from solar panels, stored so that it can be discharged at a higher power to ionise a metal propellant to create a plasma that is high temperature and high density. The plasma is confined, accelerated and directed using magnetic fields and the end result is an efficiently generated and powerful thrust. “We essentially fire thousands of plasma bullets to achieve the push,” Stokes said. “The whole point of using a metal propellant is to have the same efficiency as electric systems have, but to give them a hundred-fold improvement in thrust.”
Lessons are learnt and fixed with each stage of the component designs, typically completed during three-month sprints of work. For example, Stoke said: “When you ionise a metal into a plasma you need to make sure that it doesn’t just create a messy layer of stuff over your internal electronics. This is a system that is designed to do hundreds of millions of shots over its lifetime. You can’t have any build-up of any kind of metal material whatsoever.”
The test flight next month is to show that the Magdrive can function in space as part of a power system; if they can move the small satellite a little that would be a bonus. “Our first units out the door have to show off,” Stokes said. They hope that it will help to power the large number of small satellites scheduled for launch over the next decade, giving them the ability to repeatedly rendezvous in space, manage satellite constellations and avoid space junk.
Both self-declared “big nerds” during their teenage years, Stokes studied classics at Warwick University after being put off physics by his school teachers: “They were not inspiring at all.” But he loved technology and decided to take on mechanical engineering and a maths degree via the Open University, while holding down a bar job and an internship. “For four months I was doing 110-hour weeks, before I burnt out,” he said.
He met Clayson at Imperial College, where Stokes did an MSc in biomedical engineering. Clayson had gone straight into exploring astrophysics and gained a PhD in plasma laboratory astrophysics — “Basically blowing up things with pulsed power to re-recreate supernovas on a tiny scale” — before working on fusion power.
The co-founders did not follow the traditional university spin-out route to setting up Magdrive. Clayson had the idea of using a strong magnetic field to contain a large amount of plasma and use it as a launch rocket. They spotted a grant application from the European Space Agency and although they were not selected the 50-page application provided the nudge they needed to get moving. They set up Magdrive in 2019, initially moving into a lab at the Westcott Venture Park in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, before shifting to Harwell.
They have raised £2 million so far in venture capital, alongside about £4 million in grant funding. Their lead investor is Founders Fund, an early SpaceX and Facebook backer, and are in regular contact with its principal, Delian Asparouhov. He also happens to be the co-founder of the US company Varda, which is building factories that will operate in space.
Connections like that open doors. Stokes said he would recommend any UK hardware company to tap US investors. “They are far less risk adverse,” he said. “So they invest for far less equity.” The pandemic, he added, had made it just as easy to get on a call with a US investor as with a UK one.
Capital is vital as revenues will not start flowing until early 2025 from hardware sales to potential customers, such as Varda, or Planet, a US firm that has launched 450 satellites that capture data on the Earth, and Astroscale, an orbital debris-removal and satellite-servicing company based in Japan.
The pair believe that there are limitations to how much the UK will benefit from the growth of the space industry, despite the country’s ambitions and planned launch later this month in Cornwall. “The capacity here will allow us to do more in-orbit demonstrations and our R&D is going to continue in the UK, for sure,” Stokes said. “But we are selling to satellite operators so manufacturing will be done in the US. It’s where the bulk of the customer base is, including the US government. And to be honest, the UK is not a great place to manufacture high-value items and then ship them out.”
Given its growth Magdrive is to move into a 4,500 sq ft unit later this month and will have Thales Alenia Space as a friendly neighbour. The engineering giant’s satellite propulsion and design teams are already providing mentoring and tech assistance.
Where does it go from here? “The potential for a manned spacecraft is definitely on the horizon,” Clayson said.
Stokes added: “It’s very scalable technology. By drawing in more power and storing more power and discharging it more rapidly, we can build a much larger Magdrive.”
As the pair became more animated, Clayson took back the helm: “We are looking towards the lunar economy and asteroids.” Humanoid utopia beckons: Banks’s gigantic “general control unit” spacecraft Lightly Seared On The Reality Grill would be proud.
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