Trash collectors (11/17/21 Newsletter)

To: Payload Subscribers

November 17, 2021

Good morning. NASA said yesterday that Jessica Watkins will join Crew-4, SpaceX’s next astronaut mission, as a mission specialist. Watkins is slated to make history next April, as the first Black woman to join the ISS crew for a long-duration stay. 

In today’s newsletter…
💸 Turion’s seed round
🚀 Aerospike engines
📝 Term sheet

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 Exclusive: Turion Space Closes Seed Round

Graphic: Turion

Turion Space has closed a $4.7M seed round of funding. The Irvine, CA-based startup is focused on satellite servicing and space debris removal. Timely raise much?

“If we lose the ability to operate in LEO because we let the debris problem get out of control, the crazy growth in space technologies may end up stagnating,” Turion cofounder/CEO Ryan Westerdahl told Payload. 

Reinforced Ventures, Soma Capital, Forward VC, Gaingles, Imagination VC, S2 Capital, FoundersX Ventures, and other investors participated in the round. Turion’s first mission—Droid-1—is fully funded, Westerdahl said. FYI: Turion calls its spacecraft Droids, and has filed a trademark for the name. 

Meet the Droid family… 

  1. Droid-1 will launch ~Oct. 2022. The goal is to reach a stable orbit, send over-the-air software updates, and test equipment. The subscale demo craft won’t have a docking mechanism. 
  2. Droid-2, targeted for 2023, will be more functional. Turion plans to use Droid-2’s robo-arm to dock with Droid-1, deorbit, and demonstrate a fully functioning debris removal mechanism. Dogfooding in space!
  3. Droid-3, slated for 2024, will have a proprietary thruster and other bells and whistles. Turion plans to build and launch a batch of Droid-3s.  

Sign of the times: Turion recently graduated from Y Combinator’s S21 batch with four other space startups. The camaraderie “made life easier,” Westerdahl said. “We could talk to other startups about aerospace-specific struggles.”

The accelerator helped Turion refine its business plan, which could see the space startup making money 2–3 years after incorporation. “Our secret sauce is speed,” Westerdahl said. 

The sauce recipe: Droid-1 will have sensing payloads that Turion aims to rent out for space-to-space use cases (like situational awareness). After taking out the Droid-1 trash, Droid-2 will also be open for business. The Droid-3 generation is when volume production (relatively speaking) and scaled-up commercial services come into play.

First principles: Turion is optimizing for “Delta-V per dollar spent” on Droid design/development. Whether a Droid is deorbiting a dead satellite or shuttling a spent upper stage, all engineering and financial roads lead back to the Delta-V/$ metric, Westerdahl said. 

  • Turion plans to charge based on how much propellant is used for a job. Interested parties can input a space asset, select a service, and get a theoretical quote on Turion’s dashboard
  • Westerdahl places an emphasis on transparent, upfront pricing, taking a page from SpaceX, his former employer. 

Recently, iRocket and Turion announced a launch services deal. There’s no guarantee the launches happen or that Droid-3 sees the light of day. That’s your bear case.

The bull case? By staying lean and moving rapidly—on product iteration, operating tempo, and commercialization—Turion bets it can get a leg up in debris removal. The space junk issue isn’t going away anytime soon, and the market’s just starting to take shape.


 Breathing Fire and Threading the Needle

Screengrab, via Pangea Aerospace

Pangea Aerospace, a Barcelona-based rocket engine developer, has conducted a successful hot fire test of Europe’s first dual regeneratively cooled aerospike engine.

Aerospike engine? Most rocket engines force exhaust in one direction, which generates thrust the other way. The bell shape of the engine and a small amount of low-altitude ambient pressure work in tandem to force the exhaust in the “right” direction. But the system loses efficiency as atmospheric pressure drops.

Enter aerospike engines. Instead of a bell, aerospike engines are shaped like—shocker—spikes. The design helps the engine retain efficiency across altitudes. According to Pangea, aerospike propulsion could increase efficiency by up to 15%.

The catch: They’re notoriously expensive. And since exhaust is so concentrated, thermal management is a tall order. 

The idea of aerospike engines date back to the 1960s. NASA and Lockheed Martin took a stab at building one in the early 90s, but the initiative fell through. A few space companies have since picked up the aerospike baton.

Pangea says its engine could succeed where others have failed, by addressing the two main issues with aerospike systems.

  1. Cost. Pangea’s engine, DemoP1, is manufactured in two pieces with metallic 3D printers.
  2. Cooling. DemoP1 uses liquid oxygen and liquid methane to regeneratively cool the spike. It also relies on a novel, NASA-developed copper alloy.

Full circle: Pangea successfully tested the engine several times, with the longest firing lasing nearly three minutes. The company has won a contract from CNES to study how the technology can be applied to larger propulsion systems.


In Other News

  • Russia confirmed its ASAT test, but said newly generated debris won’t endanger orbital outposts or spaceflight activities. 
  • NATO Sec. Gen. Jens Stoltenberg, meanwhile, called the ASAT test a “reckless act.” Earlier this year, NATO expanded Article 5—the mutual defense clause—to include attacks in space. 
  • Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) is partnering with AVL, Intuitive Machines, Lunar Outpost, and Michelin to design a Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV).
  • Astroscale unveiled a universal docking device, or “tow hook,” for satellites. 
  • NASA outlined next steps in returning the Hubble telescope to normal operations.

Term Sheet

  • Planetary Systems, a developer of mechanical separation systems and satellite dispensers, reached a definitive agreement to be acquired by Rocket Lab (NASDAQ:RKLB) for $42M in cash, plus 1,720,841 in shares of common stock (~$26.6M).
  • Fleet Space Technologies, a developer of nanosatellite communications technology, raised $26.4M in Series B funding at a $126M valuation. Artesian Venture PartnersBlackbird VenturesGrok, and Horizons Ventures led the deal. 
  • Hydrosat, a provider of geospatial analytics, raised $10M in seed funding led by OTB Ventures.
  • Inversion Space, a developer of reentry vehicles for space cargo, raised $10M in seed funding led by Spark Capital.
  • Atheras Analytics, a developer of software tools for satellite gateways, raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from UK Innovation & Science Seed Fund.

Payload Insights