WASHINGTON — Astra Space and Exotrail have won orders for satellite electric propulsion systems as they work to scale up production of those products.
Astra announced April 27 it won an order for five of its Astra Spacecraft Engines from Apex, a company developing a line of standardized smallsats. The companies did not disclose the terms of the contract but Astra said it would start delivering the engines later this year.
“The Astra Spacecraft Engine has the flight heritage and the performance we need to deliver our satellite platforms to customers on schedule,” Max Benassi, chief technology officer of Apex, said in a statement. Apex announced April 4 it expects to launch its first Aries satellite in early 2024, with plans to produce such satellites in volume over time for government and commercial customers.
Astra is supplying the electric propulsion systems to Apex in a form called the Spacecraft Propulsion Kit. That kit splits the overall propulsion system into separate components for customization by customers.
Astra announced the Spacecraft Propulsion Kit at its Spacetech Day event April 25 at the company’s Alameda, California, headquarters. “We’re adopting the way dev kits have transformed the software industry,” said Margo de Naray, general manager for the Astra Spacecraft Engine, at the event. “We’re providing the support and tools to accelerate spacecraft development at scale.”
She said at the event that Astra had sold the first five kits “last night,” but did not disclose the customer at the time.
As of the end of March, Astra had orders for 278 of the Hall effect thrusters, with nine of them on satellites in orbit. To meet demand, Astra recently opened a 5,600-square-meter facility in Sunnyvale, California, to produce the engines that de Naray said will have an ultimate capacity of more than 500 thrusters a year.
The Astra Spacecraft Engine was originally developed by a propulsion startup, Apollo Fusion, that Astra acquired in 2021. Astra purchased it as part of efforts to become vertically integrated to build satellites as well as launch vehicles. However, the thrusters have become a primary source of revenue for the company in recent quarters as it put its satellite constellation plans on hold and retired its Rocket 3.3 vehicle in favor of the larger Rocket 4 that is still in development.
Those thrusters “turned out to be an incredible surprise for us,” said Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, at the Spacetech Day event. “We started selling spacecraft engines, and then we sold more spacecraft engines.”
“This has turned out to be an important revenue stream for the company. As we start to ship these spacecraft engines, it allows Astra to have two different pillars of growth,” he said, alongside launch services. “And, the spacecraft engines give us visibility into the satellites that are coming out.”
The Astra deal came one day after French propulsion company Exotrail announced it won an order for its spaceware Hall effect thruster from South Korean satellite manufacturer Satrec Initiative. The system will be used on an Earth observation satellite for the South Korean government.
The spaceware thruster comes in several configuration, and Exotrail said it sold a “micro XL” version that uses 150 watts of power and produces seven millinewtons of thrust.
“We are extremely thankful to Satrec Initiative for this mark of confidence, emphasizing the fact that our spaceware product is a true asset for the constellation market, notably for Earth observation satellites,” Jean-Luc Maria, chief executive of Exotrail, said in a statement.
Exotrail raised $58 million in a Series B round in February to fund the company’s expansion plans. That funding would support increased production of spaceware thruster systems as well as work on an orbital transfer vehicle. The company said the funding would also enable expansion into the U.S. and Asian markets.