ExoTerra Resource taps electromagnetic thrusters to make space affordable
Monday September 28, 2015 0 comments
LONE TREE -- Michael VanWoerkom has his sights set on the moon.
“It’s always been a dream of mine,” says VanWoerkom, a 14-year veteran of the aerospace industry and longtime engineer at Lockheed Martin’s Colorado offices. “There hasn’t been anyone on the moon since I was born. It’s something we seem to have forgotten how to do, so I’ve always been motivated to get us back.”
Over the past decade, buzz around the commercial and private space industry has reached a fever pitch, led by manufacturers like Sierra Nevada Corporation in Centennial. The company is busy testing and retesting a manned spacecraft, the Dream Chaser, with the first orbital launch scheduled for 2016. Moon expeditions have been part of the private-space dialogue since the beginning.
But VanWoerkom knows only a select few can enter the complex and extremely expensive realm of manned flight. For every Sierra Nevada Corporation, there needs to be a slew of aerospace contractors dedicated to the nitty-gritty realities of sending tools, equipment and supplies into space.
In 2011, shortly after working on NASA’s Orion crew module for Lockheed Martin, VanWoerkom left Lockheed to launch a new venture, ExoTerra Resource. The small company of just six employees is now focused on the relatively unspoken side of private space flight: affordability.
Then, of course, comes the moon.
“The primary goal has always been finding ways to make space affordable with the goal of returning people to the moon,” VanWoerkom says. “That’s always in the back of our head, so everything we do spins off what kind of technologies are needed to do that some day.”
The Hall effect
Before reaching the moon — or even before manufacturing the equipment to get there — VanWoerkom needed the right people and technology to make space affordable. He earned an MBA from University of Colorado-Boulder to learn business intricacies, then quickly linked up with a former professor at Colorado State University, Paul Wilbur.
Wilbur’s research focused on electromagnetic propulsion, which works on a property know as the Hall effect. Unlike solid-fuel thrusters — the massive engines latched to the bottom of craft at Cape Canaveral — Hall effect thrusters use electrical and magnetic fields to move an object. While these thrusters aren’t yet strong enough to power a craft into orbit, they can move smaller objects through the weightlessness of space for a fraction of the traditional cost. They’re the go-to systems for large geo satellites and deep-space missions.
As a relatively new startup, ExoTerra still relies on consulting contracts to fund new Hall effect technology. Several employees are currently working on the Orion project, while a few others have a hand in Dream Catcher.
“We’ve found it pretty difficult to find funding,” VanWoerkom says. “We’ve tried the venture capital route on a couple of occasions, but we get frustrated because people seem more interested in other ventures. Essentially, we were told that our product is too high-tech for investors.”
But ExoTerra is slowly finding footing. The company recently won a NASA contract for work on an asteroid redirection study. Using electric propulsion, the study looks at the logistics of capturing an asteroid — and then putting it into lunar orbit for astronauts to study.
“For millions of dollars instead of billions, we can send a small satellite to an asteroid ahead of time to look at it, understand what it is we’re trying to grab before we get there,” VanWoerkom says of the NASA project. “We can launch a small, robotic miner to gather resources or whatever we need for the return mission.”
First thruster test
The concept of mining and gathering resources remotely also fits into ExoTerra’s affordability concept. If a rover is self-sustaining on, say, an asteroid or the moon, it no longer needs to carry all the necessary supplies for an expedition.
“This allows your spacecraft to be smaller, which allows for a smaller rocket,” VanWoerkom says. “That brings the total cost of the launch down, and we’ve tied that into the growing movement of micro-satellites. It’s all about shrinking things, getting smaller.”
Micro-satellites, also known as “cubesats,” are typically 10x10x10-centimeter satellites strung together to piggyback onto other payloads. They can’t contain combustible or potentially dangerous materials, which means they’re perfect for electromagnetic propulsion.
“We were looking at how to use magnetic propulsion to move large things and make them go where you want,” VanWoerkom says. “We showed that you can use the same technology — the tech you need to move an asteroid — to potentially reach the moon and Mars. We had a clear story for how electric propulsion can support human missions as well.”
Again, bits and pieces of NASA funding can only help. Exoterra has won three awards though the NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to develop Hall effect thrusters, including the company’s first in-house prototype.
VanWoerkom says it is smaller — and potentially four times more efficient — than anything else currently being developed. His team fired the thruster for the first time recently at a CSU lab, a perk of teaming up with CSU Ventures.
“They’re interested in seeing us succeed, and we’ve been able to really make the most of their resources,” VanWoerkom says. “It’s been fairly synergistic.”
Although the thruster still needs major tweaks, it turned on -- and that’s half the battle. Now, it’s a matter of securing funding for the next half.
“There is a lot of stuff happening in the aerospace world here in Denver, and that allows us to tap into other companies or individuals who can help with our projects,” VanWoerkom says. “It’s good, fertile ground to start a new aerospace company.”