Natalya Bailey’s tiny engines could change the economics of space exploration, much as the jet engine altered commercial air travel
There’s a sweet spot about 22,000 miles above the planet. Only in this narrow band of space can an object achieve geosynchronous orbit, moving at the same speed as Earth’s rotation and staying fixed above one point on the surface. It’s beachfront real estate in the void.
This part of space came of age with the baby boomers in the 1960s. It’s been dominated by the few governments, aerospace giants, and telecoms with enough money and expertise to build a complex SUV-size object and lob it almost a tenth of the way to the moon. Everything in this stratum is highly planned and expensive; a satellite here can cost more than $300 million to produce.
Far below, at an elevation of about 370 miles, is the cheaper and riskier near-Earth orbit that has matured in step with millennials. It’s a free-floating, unruly mess populated by a new generation of miniature satellites that can be as small as toys and made for as little as $10,000. Already, they’re being stuffed aboard launch rockets like Tic Tacs.
The falling cost of building space tech and putting it into orbit has entrepreneurs, researchers, and oil- tankertracking hedge fund analysts lining up to claim their corner of the upper atmosphere. About one-third of the 4,600 man-made objects in Earth orbit went up in the past decade, including a record 553 last year, according to the United Nations.
All of this activity poses a problem: There’s no efficient way to position these objects once they’ve been launched. The result is something like thousands of boats adrift at sea. Until now, there was little reason for engineers to streamline satellite propulsion, because geosynchronous satellites were large enough that they could devote a few extra pounds to bulky, chemical-driven engines. Smaller space objects in near-Earth orbit mostly just float along without propulsion, descending eventually, as NASA requires, into a so-called graveyard orbit, where they will burn up within 25 years. A tiny satellite or lab that could scoot itself around would be able to go higher, into less-dense layers of space, then steer into a fiery atmospheric death once obsolete. It would also be nimble enough to dodge the 18,000 or so pieces of manmade junk zipping around the globe like a hypersonic trash dump.
The frantic new space race needs an engine. Preferably a tiny one.
Inside an old brick candy factory north of Boston, 30 young rocket scientists with scrufffringing their hairnets shuffle among machines and curl over microscopes, tinkering with tiny tools like watch makers. Accion Systems Inc. essentially makes one product, a device about the size of a deck of cards that’s designed to slowly and silently nudge satellites, spacecraft, and other galactic ephemera through the blackness. Technically, the Tile—an acronym for tiled ionic liquid electrospray—is an ion engine, which is to say it runs on a stream of charged particles, much like a battery. Stick enough of them onto a giant craft, and you can putter out to Mars.
At least, that’s Natalya Bailey’s hope. Her company’s little engines haven’t yet left the ground. The 31-year-old chief executive officer travels in a tight orbit around Accion’s office. She spends most of her time amid a scrum of desks, occasionally swinging by the lab to see how the Tile is faring against a phalanx of machines that squeeze and shuffle it to approximate the violence of a rocket launch and the vacuity of space. The only significant time she spends in her private office is to pump milk for her 9-month-old daughter, who goes to the day care next door. “The world needs this technology,” Bailey says of her engine. “And it isn’t very clear that someone else can do it better.”
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