The space industry is developing at a significant pace. Probably, to the uninitiated reader it seems that the main successes are made by such companies as SpaceX or NASA’s government programs, launching new types of rockets and large-scale missions. However, the industry owes its progress to startups and companies that innovate in less visible but equally important areas. One such company is Orbion, an organization founded in 2016 that manufactures thrusters for small satellites, which decreases the cost of launches several times.
Orbion founders are Lyon King, a graduate and professor at MTU (Michigan Technological University), and Jason Sommerville, a colleague and co-author of many King’s papers. Both entrepreneurs have extensive experience in space development and are inventors themselves. For example, the technology that Orbion uses to build engines was invented and patented by King and Sommerville, as well as seven other inventions that King created independently or in collaboration with MTU.
Moreover, King and Sommerville know how to find investments using different ways and means. In June 2017, Orbion opened a seed round of investment, which lasted until August 2019 and brought the company $ 2.4 million, and it simultaneously held a Series A funding round, receiving $ 9.2 million. However, such a volume of investments cannot cover all the necessary costs for the creation of robotic lines for the production of space technologies. So, King and Sommerville decided to attract the attention of more prominent investors. In August 2020, Orbion and AST & Science (AST) announced a collaboration to cover the entire earth with high quality and stable 4G and 5G mobile connections. However, an analysis of the sources indicates that this cooperation was only an agreement between the companies to attract the attention of the public and investors, since neither the timing of the project nor the size of the contracts has been published yet.
Orbion required this attention because it has excellent potential to interest many companies. Company is engaged in the industrial production of the Aurora thruster based on high-performance Hall-effect propulsion systems. The advantage of the Aurora thruster is that it uses ionization, which makes the satellites more maneuverable and reduces the use of xeon fuel. Consequently, satellites last longer in space and increase the return on investment for their launches.
However, the main feature of Orbion is that it intends to robotize production lines and product testing. This approach to manufacturing, according to the company, will allow the creation and delivery of the Aurora thruster to customers within 6-8 days instead of 12-18 months and reduce its cost. Consequently, the launch of small satellites will become available to most startups thanks to Orbion.
These advantages and the smart move of the company’s leaders have brought Orbion several major investments and contracts. In June 2021, Orbion received $ 20 million in a Series B funding round, which is a significant incentive to launch mass production. Orbion should also supply four Aurora propulsion systems to Blue Canyon Technologies, which will be used for military purposes in the Blackjack program satellites. Moreover, the company received a $50,000 contract from the Air Force to investigate the capabilities of a high-thrust propulsion system to avoid collisions of small satellites as part of the AFWERX program. Thus, Orbion has several contracts to ensure its work for the coming years.
Nevertheless, virtually all of the company’s achievements are still theoretical. In 2019, CEO Brad King announced plans to retool factories and begin mass production in 2021, but the timeline has shifted to 2022. Moreover, it is possible that Orbion will need an additional round of funding. The robotization of the entire production and testing lines is costly. Given the number of orders and the anticipated increasing demand for small satellites, the company needs to expand its manufacturing structures significantly.
Orbion today has features of a company that could revolutionize the launch of small satellites. But despite its achievements in funding and contracting, the world can judge its success only after the launch of mass production.