Phase Four, a satellite electric propulsion business, has finished testing the new thruster that delivers dramatically enhanced performance, according to the company. The El Segundo, California-centered company announced on December 1 that checking of the Block 2 edition of the Maxwell radio-frequency thruster, which was announced earlier this year, revealed an 85 percent performance improvement in aspects of thrust and precise impulse, allowing the firm to begin production of the new model.
In an interview, Phase Four’s chief technology officer, Umair Siddiqui, said the performance boost was the result of “3 to 4 small to medium-sized tweaks.” These considerations include the thruster’s frequency of operation, propellant flow rates, and other thruster engineering restrictions.
The business’s initial Block 1 thruster has flown on various spacecraft, including those owned by Capella, a company that specializes in synthetic aperture radar imaging. For the past two years, the company’s main focus has been on improving that original thruster and establishing a production line for it.
“Right now, the focus is on incrementing on thruster design to improve performance,” Siddiqui explained. “Now you can get a cell of engineers focused on engine efficiency, thrust, and other factors, and when those new advancements are released, they can be integrated into our manufacturing line.”
Phase Four’s CEO, Beua Jarvis, said the firm now has a crew devoted to thruster production “so the engineers could go back to being engineers,” which he expects will result in “better-performing systems far faster than we’ve been able to do too far.”
Customers will receive the very first Block 2 thrusters in the very first half of 2022. For those thrusters, Jarvis said, “we have many smallsat constellation customers.” A Block 3 edition of Maxwell is already in the works, with modifications to the electronics for increased efficiency and adjustments to the fluid management platform to enable the thrusters to be sent completely fueled instead of fueled at the launch complex.
Phase Four, headquartered in El Segundo, California, is overcoming the satellite’s most expensive problem, the propulsion system, to enable exponential expansion of satellite constellations. The company’s electrodeless RF thruster is the world’s smallest plasma propulsion technology, and it can be scaled up to school bus-sized satellites. Phase Four has created a system that delivers reliable high performance plus baked-in manufacturability by eliminating the most typical failure points in traditional technologies — high-voltage electronics, electrodes, and complex fabrication. The P4 RF thruster was designed with tomorrow’s constellations and satellites in mind, giving small satellites the very same performance levels as large satellites in a smaller package.