Pale Blue (Co-founder and Representative Director: Jun Asakawa; hereinafter, “Pale Blue”) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (President: Hiroshi Yamakawa; hereinafter, “JAXA”) have launched a “business concept co-creation project” under the framework of the JAXA Space Innovation through Partnership and Co-creation (hereinafter, “J-SPARC”) program (*1) to create a low-power electric propulsion system business (*2).
This co-creation activity will be pursued by leveraging the expertise JAXA has cultivated in developing and operating the Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 asteroid exploration missions, JAXA’s R&D results on low-pressure tanks for electric propulsion systems, and the expertise and business know-how Pale Blue has acquired in the course of developing and operating electric propulsion systems.
Pale Blue aims to develop and commercialize a new product – a 300W-class electric propulsion system – in anticipation of an expanding market for satellite constellations and other applications by utilizing the microwave cathode technology (*3) acquired by JAXA while developing and operating Hayabusa and Hayabusa2.
JAXA will provide information on the world’s most advanced electric propulsion technologies fostered through Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 and other support, and will also use its patent-pending metal-organic framework (MOF) (*4) technology to develop a new low-pressure tank (*5). This development will be undertaken in collaboration with Atomis Co., Ltd. (CEO: Daisuke Asari; hereinafter, “Atomis”), a Kyoto University start-up company specializing in MOF, a next-generation porous material for which expectations are high.
Pale Blue will then use the progress made by JAXA on the low-pressure tank to further upgrade the capabilities of the 30W-class electric propulsion system it is developing for business.
In implementing this business concept co-creation activity, JAXA will be taking on the challenge of new R&D and striving to make maximum use of the results thereof, while Pale Blue will be seeking to enhance its low-power electric propulsion system and to create a new business. JAXA will also be considering future missions that utilize this improved electric propulsion system.
The founding members of Pale Blue have been conducting space demonstrations of a 30W-class electric propulsion system for microsatellites using xenon as the propellant at The University of Tokyo. Confronting the issue of in-space lifetime and the inherent difficulties of handling high-pressure gas, they developed a 30W-class electric propulsion system using water, a safe and sustainable energy resource, as the propellant and founded Pale Blue in 2020.
To realize a 300W-class electric propulsion system for satellite constellations and other applications, a market expected to grow in future, Pale Blue believed it necessary to improve its cathode technology and to build on its experience of developing the aforementioned 30W-class electric propulsion system. Through dialogue with JAXA, Pale Blue has formulated a plan to reduce development risks and acquire new markets as soon as possible by utilizing JAXA’s technological advancements in microwave cathodes onboard Hayabusa and Hayabusa2.
JAXA has been developing a new low-pressure lightweight tank using MOF, deeming it vital to improve the lifetime performance of the 30W-class electric propulsion system and reduce the handling difficulties and structural mass inherent to high-pressure gas in order to realize future missions. JAXA has also developed a low-pressure tank through dialogue with Pale Blue, which is utilizing the results of the low-pressure tank development for the 30W-class electric propulsion system Pale Blue has been marketing. Thus was born the idea of a co-creation activity in which JAXA would work to speed up social implementation of its low-pressure tank development efforts and Pale Blue to efficiently improve the capabilities of its 30W-class electric propulsion system.
J-SPARC (JAXA Space Innovation through Partnership and Co-creation) is a co-creation R&D program that begins with dialogue between JAXA and private companies and others looking to move into the space business and, with the commitment of both parties to commercialization, then moves on to considering business concepts and developing/demonstrating exit-oriented technologies to create new businesses. Launched in May 2018, the program has so far resulted in the commercialization (commoditization and go-live) of VR, food, education, entertainment, and telecommunications endeavors by private-sector companies through the pursuit of about 40 projects and activities. The co-creation of business concepts entails such activities as market research and business concept studies, while joint business demonstration involves joint feasibility studies prior to commercialization as well as joint technology development and demonstration.
*2: “Low-power electric propulsion system project
The 30W system is expected to be used as the main propulsion system for orbit control of deep space probes and for gravity-wave and infrared astronomy missions by formation flights, while the 300W system will be designed for use as the propulsion system for orbit control of constellation satellites in low Earth orbit.
3: Microwave cathode technology
This is the world’s first microwave electron source demonstrated in space via Hayabusa. It generates plasma by microwave discharge and emits electron beams, and it is used in the ion engine as a neutralizer to maintain spacecraft potential.
4: Metal-organic framework (MOF)
Also known as porous coordination polymer (PCP), this is a hybrid organic-inorganic material in which metal ions and organic molecules are arranged in special structures to form numerous small spaces at the nano-level. The spaces can be used to selectively adsorb, absorb, separate, and react with gaseous and small molecules, and research is underway to commercialize this next-generation porous material for a variety of applications.
5: Low pressure tank
This tank uses a metal-organic framework (MOF) to maintain a pressure of less than 10 atmospheres, exempting it from the restrictions imposed on high-pressure gas tanks. It can efficiently store small quantities (a few kilograms) of gas and is expected to simplify range operations and lower management costs.
We have been working since our company’s founding on practical applications for a 30W-class electric propulsion system using water as the propellant, and we have succeeded in developing and commercializing this system. We are very pleased to be working with Dr. Tsukizaki and the rest of JAXA’s world-class Electric Propulsion Research Team in developing a 300W-class electric propulsion system to further expand our business as well as a micro-electric propulsion system that will help JAXA carry out scientific missions. We will continue developing our electric propulsion technology to expand the possibilities available to mankind.
Gas storage using metal-organic frameworks (MOF) is a technology that is suitable for electric propulsion and other vacuum systems because it can adsorb and release gases at a wide range of pressures from vacuum to atmospheric. We are pleased to be able to contribute to low-power propulsion systems by enabling propellant to be safely and easily replenished free of the restrictions imposed by the High-Pressure Gas Safety Act. In addition, Hayabusa2 will continue to operate on an extended mission, challenging the limits of the thruster performance. I hope to use the knowledge I have gained here to improve the lifetime of low-power electric thrusters.
Emily Okuhara, Marketing & Communications of Pale Blue