Space Taxi for Your Satellite – Part II

Interview with Negar Feher, VP of Product and Business Development of Momentus

At the beginning of the summer, we have had an amazing tour to Momentus facilities, a space tug factory in Silicon Valley. We continue our #knowyouroptions series to feature NewSpace entrepreneurs and inspire more people to join the space race with an interesting conversation with Negar Feher, VP of Product and Business Development of Momentus. She has taken us on a tour, has introduced the team, and has given us a big #knowyouroptions interview.

Andrey Maksimov: Negar, first of all, thanks for inviting us to your office. It’s really a pleasure to meet you guys in person and to see the actual facilities here in California. First of all, can you tell us a few words about what is so special about your service and what are you guys doing? What are you guys working on?

Negar Feher: Of course! Thank you for coming! Glad to host you. Basically at Momentus what we’re providing is just like connecting flights that you have here on the ground, where it is always cheaper to get a connecting flight than a direct flight, which is taking this same business model to space. We’re providing this space shuttle service for taking satellites from where the rockets drop them off to a custom orbit where they would actually want to be. And we are very excited to be building those space shuttles that can take all these smaller satellites to where they want to be.

AM: So, it’s like that old fashioned space tug concept, but in the modern 21st-century style, right?

NF: Yes, and to add to it we use water as our propellant, so we can do it very efficiently and very quickly. We use a technology called water-plasma propulsion. It’s very safe, so we can launch off of manned platforms like the ISS and it’s very cost-effective because the propellant is cheap, and we use a lot of commercial off-the-shelf components, which makes overall our space tug as you like to call it cheap and affordable. So the mission is to make space transportation as efficient as possible in order to enable our vision, which is to make people be able to traverse the Universe as cost-effectively as possible so that we can move freely through wherever we want, be it another planet, an asteroid, another solar system, etc. That’s our overall vision.

AM: And how efficient is water? It doesn’t seem like a typical rocket propellant.

NF: Yes, it doesn’t seem like a typical rocket propellant and it hasn’t been used necessarily in the past. A lot of people have separated it into hydrogen and oxygen in order to be used on chemical rockets like what Blue Origin does, but nobody has used it in the form of water vapor that we do. We manage to do this very effectively because we turn this water vapor that we inject into a resonant chamber into plasma and then we put that plasma out of a converging-diverging nozzle in order to generate thrust. So this concept of taking water, turning it into plasma, putting it through the nozzle is what allows us to use a propellant such as water, and use it effectively and efficiently to get high enough efficiencies so we can get the thrust and the trip times that we’re really looking for. So that’s why we’re using water and why it wasn’t used in the past is a very long story. I could give you a lecture on propulsion.

AM: Since you’ve mentioned the plasma… We know that there are at least a couple of companies that propose to manufacture plasma thrusters for the satellites. So, how is your solution different from them?

NF: From other people that use water plasma?

AM: Not water plasma, the actual plasma?

NF: Can you be more specific about what other companies you’re talking about?

AM: Phase Four

NF: Ah, ok. So, with some companies like Phase Four or Accion, the main difference is the fact that they are basically designed for micro propulsion systems and they don’t use water, they use other propellants, other chemical propellants, and they generate micro levels of thrust, really small levels of thrust that are mainly designed for really small satellites, CubeSats in particular, in order to be used for doing small maneuvers and station-keeping, etc, and deorbiting at the end of the life.

Our solution is designed in order to be able to transport satellites very quickly from point A to point B, which is basically our business model is transportation. That’s how we differ from them. We are able to generate much more thrust, like you know, 3 times more, in some cases 10 times more depending on what other plasma propulsion system you’re looking at in order to allow us to do trip times at a faster speed and to do it more efficiently than they could. So they might have really high ISPs, which is an efficiency factor, but they don’t have very high thrust, which basically means that they’re gonna go slow, very slow.

AM: And their business models are completely different, because they are hardware manufacturers, so their customer needs to understand how to integrate their thruster into their mission design, how to do all the procurement tests etc, while you guys are providing services. I think it’s very different from the others. 

NF: Yes. We do not sell… you know, we build water-plasma propulsion systems and that’s our proprietary patent technology, but we are not in the business selling that, we’re not a propulsion supplier by any means. We are a service provider and we primarily provide transportation services, like I was mentioning earlier. So, that’s another way how we differentiate again… And the reason we developed this propulsion technology is because we needed something that was going to be both cheap and fast, and the existing propulsion solutions for the smallsat industry are cheap, but they’re not fast, so they don’t provide the thrust that we need in order to take people where they want to go. They don’t want to wait to get there. You know, most people don’t want to wait more than three months in order to get to their destination, especially if you’re talking about a satellite that has a life of a couple of years or five years: they’re not gonna spend a year getting there.

AM: Thirty percent of their lifetime…

NF: Exactly.

AM: Very good. And who is your ideal customer?

NF: An ideal customer is someone who is looking for a particular custom orbit or destination, so let’s say they don’t want to go to an SSO with an L10 at 9:30 a.m., they don’t want to go to a sun-synchronous orbit, or they don’t want to be at the exact ISS orbit, or where a particular rocket drops them off, but they want to be a bit higher or lower or at a slightly different inclination or a different Sun-crossing time.  So this would be the customers that would ideally come to us and say: ‘You know, we are looking to get to this particular destination, but we can’t get there’. That’s within LEO, and then within GEO, we have a whole subset of customers who are ideal, because there are not a lot of options for small satellites and CubeSats to get there.

They all become our ideal customers because we open up a whole avenue of opportunities, you know, of options to get them from LEO to GEO, or GTO to GEO, or from a highly elliptical orbit. We open up options for them to use dedicated launch vehicles like ABL, Relativity or others to take them all the way to GEO and beyond, whereas we perfectly complement the dedicated launch vehicles, we also complement the rideshare vehicles, the really big rockets. Because just like the SSO mission they dropped off like 60 people at the same place. All those satellites didn’t want to be at that one location, so ideally we would be offering our services on those kinds of missions transporting them to the particular desired destination.

We have a little variety of customers that we consider to be ideal, and some are within LEO, some want to go to very unique orbits like a Moon night orbit or Tundra orbit or something that’s very hard to get a ride to especially if you’re a small satellite. And then we have another class, which is large vehicles. If you think of like big communication satellites or big spy satellites, and others, a big portion of the spacecraft is actually their propulsion system that’s used for orbit raising. So big orbit-raising propulsion systems with some GEO spacecraft, you consider as a third of their volume. The whole structure of the satellite is built around its orbit-raising propulsion system: there are two prop tanks and the main station thrusters. So, we become a great complemented those, because now instead of flying back on their own satellite they can fly more payloads, so it basically enables them to have more mass and volume for their payloads.

AM: So, it means like a typical geostationary satellite today has to have enough thruster capacity to raise the orbit from GTO to GEO, and you might be able to change that by giving them an orbital raise…

NF: Exactly.

AM: …from LEO to GEO. Wow, that’s impressive!

NF: And then they can carry… so, let’s say it’s a 3,000 kg payload, and 1,000 kg is their prop budget, their propellant, oxidizer, and thruster. Now imagine they can carry that much more payload instead of having to carry all of that props and stuff because it enables them to utilize even more of the allocated volume within the payload fairing of the rocket for usable payload and not a system that they use just for getting there. Because if you think about it and your communication satellite has a life of 15 years, they only need this prop system during the first couple of months for getting there. And once they’re there, they are kind of carrying around this weight for no reason, they don’t need it anymore for the rest of the 15 years, but it’s essential to get there, so they have no other option but to fly it on the board of the spacecraft.

AM: It eats up a lot of their budgets.

NF: Yeah, so their station keeping budget has to allocate for all that extra mass and volume, they have to carry it around and spend extra fuel to keep them at a particular location that they want to be, which with our solution they won’t need, for example.

AM: So to basically to summarize, for CubeSats and existing LEO market you guys can do the orbital raise within LEO to basically extend the mission, the lifetime of the mission for an Earth typical observation satellite or IOT satellite and if they are to survive in 500 – 600 kilometers for the next couple of years, then you guys can extend their commercial available time for a couple of years more or you can fix their orbit inclination to reach a better sun-sync orbit. Is it correct?

NF: So, Sun-sync orbits have a particular crossing time, so they look at the Earth at a particular time of the day, and usually with these smaller satellites that go on rideshare missions, they look at it at a particular time in the morning, let’s say 10 am or something. So, if you ever launch a satellite there and you try to build up a constellation you don’t want to always look at the same time. So we can help those constellation customers by changing that Sun-crossing time, so now instead of 10 am it’s 2 pm or it’s… different times. They get more data, more images across the entire day, across the entire spectrum. And that becomes even more relevant for some people who have other kinds of missions like a solar mission or other types of missions that require different crossing times.

AM: How does your timeline look like? Because you’ve mentioned solutions both for the LEO economy and for GEO satellites as well. So how does this land on your timeline of the services that you’re starting to provide?

NF: In terms of our roadmap, today we provide Vigoride as a service both as an orbit transfer service and Vigoride Line which includes the launch and the transfer service, and that’s designed between starting now through 2020, next year. We’re gonna be offering that service with multiple launches a year. Some of them including the launch and/or orbit transfer services and some of them are just orbit transfer services depending on the customers. And that’s meant to address all the small satellites that want to go within LEO: either launch from the ISS or on a dedicated rocket or a big rideshare mission going to SSO.

Then in 2021, we’re bringing on our Vigoride Extended, which is designed for taking satellites all the way to GEO. It has a higher delta-V, up to 5 km/sec, so it can enable missions that can go from GTO to GEO, LEO to GEO or all the way to the Moon, like, it can go very far. And it basically enables a whole new class of missions for people with smaller payloads, like 300 kg. So it’s designed for small satellites that want to go to GEO and beyond.

And then in 2022 timeframe, we have something called Hard Ride, which is our next mission, our next service, and that one will be able to launch things that are like up to 4 tons. So you are talking big geostationary satellites, big deep space exploration missions will be enabled by this service. And then you can launch whole constellations of satellites. Let’s say, you’re trying to launch a constellation of small satellites, you know, to offer global coverage. You could do this with just this one vehicle. You can launch like 45 satellites and then you can stack them all on top of each other. And you can mount satellites on different ports. And that service is basically designed to address the really big geo communication satellites as well as the big exploration missions, like the deep space Gateway and other missions that are trying to go take samples at different planets as well as smaller geo com satellites that are becoming more and more common now as the geo market is evolving.

AM: Do you think it’s the kind of solution that can also change inclination pretty significantly?

NF: Yes, that one we can do, like, a 20 degrees inclination change, up to 40 degrees and even beyond. We are doing studies right now taking satellites all the way from SSO all the way to GEO, and we’re finding that’s even possible if we want to.

AM: This could be a point for future constellation companies.

NF: And this service is actually very enabling for constellation customers, especially for replacement satellites. They might book one launch vehicle and launch all their satellites like 50 at a time or 60 at a time, but then what happens when a couple of them died, they wanna send up replacement satellites, the cost of launching these replacement satellites is quite significant. And then they might have multiple launches and they might not get them exactly where they want etc., so we’re finding with a lot of our customers that we’re talking to you right now that they’re interested in replacement satellites and also potentially deorbiting their satellites at the end of life, which is a service we will probably start looking into later on in a couple of years.

AM: And it seems like it might be an expensive service because you have to manage the first leg, which is a dedicated mission or a rideshare mission, and then stack on top of that your service. So, how much an investment has a company to do in order to avail your service?

NF: It’s actually not that significant in terms of an investment, because the same way launch vehicle providers can offer rideshare missions, we can do the same thing. So, we might be a secondary on the launch, but then we can offer people secondary slots on our launches, which then makes them very affordable.

AM: So, rideshare within rideshare?

NF: Yes, and also because we take up a bigger chunk of the mass within the launch vehicle, we get like bulk pricing. So, you can think of it as if it keeps us launch by itself, the cost for you might be 60,000 dollars per CubeSat, whereas if we book 300-400 kg worth of launch capacity in a rocket, we get it much cheaper price per launch. We get…

AM: And you get primary rideshare conditions on launch company within aggregator, which is also a great advantage.

NF: So we can book a whole Rocket Lab or we can book a whole Relativity turn rocket or Launch One and be the primary and that makes it much more cost-effective than just small satellite launches. That’s how we can make it affordable. Plus, our platforms aren’t really that expensive, as I said earlier because we use water, a lot of commercial components, and we’re basically taking advantage of a lot of the smallsat components that have already been disruptive you can look at a lot of avionics, electronics, and everything. That industry, thanks to the smallsat industry being around and being so active, has been disruptive so much that now all these components are quite affordable. Maybe, not as affordable as parts in your cell phone, but we’re gonna get there very soon. And once we get to that point, then our service will be extremely affordable. 

You know, the first couple of months might not be there, because still satellites cost not the same as a car, but eventually as this industry gets more and more disruptive, all the cost will come down including launch cost, cause we’re predicting the launch costs to come down significantly as rockets get larger and larger and the demand for our services will increase too, because as the rocket gets larger and larger there is no one satellite that can take up that capacity.   

AM: And the rockets will still go to that one location, and people will need to get to their final destination from there. Right…

NF: Right. Exactly.

AM: Thank you so much Negar for the conversation.

NF: You’re welcome! Thank you!

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