A new satellite system sucks in air to provide unlimited propulsion

The new satellite system could improve imaging quality by 16 fold.
Chris Young
The ABEP propulsion system.Kreios Space

Barcelona-based startup Kreios Space wants to unleash the potential of very low Earth orbit (VLEO) satellite missions.

Its secret weapon? The company is developing a fuel-free propulsion system that enables satellites to orbit much closer to Earth.

"Right now, very low Earth orbit is an unused orbit simply because of the lack of propulsion systems capable of staying in this orbit," Jan Mataró, Kreios Space CTO told IE in an interview at the Mobile World Congress. "But it could allow for a huge increase in the resolution for both telecommunications and earth observation."

What is very low Earth orbit?

VLEO is roughly defined as any orbit in the range between 95 miles to 250 miles of altitude. As a point of reference, the Kármán Line, which some define as the boundary of space, is about 65 miles high. Most satellite missions currently operate at about 370 miles or much higher, where they can maintain an orbit that keeps them rotating around Earth with minimal thrust.

Operations in VLEO can provide substantial benefits, according to Kreios Space, but it is currently an unexploited orbit due to the fact that constant thrust is needed to prevent satellites from deorbiting because of the atmospheric drag effect at this relatively low altitude.

With current technologies, this constant orbital correction would simply be too costly, but Kreios Space thinks it has the solution — and it's one that could also help with the growing problem of space debris. Called ABEP, which stands for Air-Breathing Electric Propulsion, the company's system works by absorbing air to generate plasma, which is then accelerated through an IPT thruster and electromagnetic nozzle. And yes, there is still some air in the altitude at which ABEP will operate. The team at Kreios Space believes its system will lower the costs of VLEO operations enough to make them feasible. 

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There's no space debris in VLEO

But what are the main benefits of operating in VLEO? "Descending to VLEO would provide two major improvements," Mataró told IE. "The first one is a massive increase in resolution for satellite images, and the second comes from the fact that space debris does not accumulate at this altitude."

To be precise, Kreios Space says operating in VLEO will allow a 16x increase in resolution for Earth observation and telecommunications satellites. What's more, the firm claims its system "doesn't produce space debris" as satellites operating at such a low orbit will have to eventually make a planned deorbit. "When the satellite's lifetime is finished," Mataró said, "it will simply deorbit and disintegrate." More often than not, satellites are placed into a graveyard orbit at the end of their lifetime, which has resulted in a massive accumulation of orbital space debris over the years — according to the European Space Agency, there are approximately 98,000 tonnes worth of space objects currently hurtling around the planet.

According to a statement provided to IE, Kreios Space said it aims to have the first complete functional ABEP system ready by 2024. To do that, they hope to raise €2.5 million (approx. $2.7 million) over two upcoming investment rounds.

If Kreios Space — which is composed of six co-founding engineers from Barcelona — achieves its goal of making constant orbital corrections at such a low orbit affordable, it will open up a whole new avenue for satellite operators. This would reduce the cost of high-resolution images, making them more accessible to all. It would be of massive benefit to the scientific community, which is more reliant than ever on Earth observation.

Correction 09/03/22: An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited geostationary orbit and the effects of gravity on satellites. This was corrected.

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