Nanosatellite with Singapore start-up's thruster deployed into space on SpaceX mission

Aliena chief technology officer George-Cristian Potrivitu (left) and chief executive Mark Lim Jian Wei are both co-founders of the company. PHOTO: ALIENA
A 3D image rendering of a satellite, powered by Aliena’s engine, in Earth’s orbit. PHOTO: ALIENA

SINGAPORE - Billionaire Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, deployed a nanosatellite into orbit early on Friday (Jan 14) morning, bringing along with it a thruster that was designed and produced by a Singaporean tech start-up.

The thruster engine was from Aliena, a company started in 2018 by two students who met while working on their PhDs at the Space Propulsion Centre in the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

A thruster is used by satellites to make occasional firings to keep them in orbit, otherwise they would fall and re-enter Earth's atmosphere.

The nanosatellite was deployed into orbit at 12.28am Singapore time, from the SpaceX Falcon 9's Transporter-3 mission in Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.

Compared to current Hall thrusters that require around 1,000 watts to keep larger satellites in orbit and are unsuitable for smaller spacecraft, Aliena's engine can keep a nanosatellite operational with less than 10 watts of power, comparable to the energy needed to switch on a light bulb, according to the start-up.

The thruster also costs a fraction compared to current larger ones in the market that can go up to US$2.2 million (S$2.9 million) per thruster, said Dr Mark Lim Jian Wei, 33, co-founder and chief executive of Aliena.

He added that propulsion systems like the one Aliena develops are important to be able to actively manoeuvre satellites.

China had earlier submitted a note to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in December last year that claimed two SpaceX satellites flew too close to the country's space station.

Dr Lim said: "Propulsion systems allow for collision avoidance to be executed in space. Without a propulsion system, if you know that there's a satellite going to approach you, the only thing you can do is to pray right?"

Since forming Aliena in 2018 with co-founder and chief technology officer George-Cristian Potrivitu, 30, more than 20 people have worked on the thruster.

Aliena’s Hall effect thruster that allows small satellites to move in space with less than 10 watts. PHOTO: ALIENA

Mr Potrivitu, who is also an NTU PhD candidate, said the pair was inspired to start the company to solve real world problems such as sustainability in space.

He said: "We saw how satellites were becoming more prevalent - especially miniature satellites, and there was a demand for propulsion systems that could enable sustainability in space and on ground.

"We can enable sustainability in space through giving satellites the ability to decommission themselves after their end of life, leaving behind a clean space for the generations to follow. And to also empower sustainability on Earth through the high resolution images that can be acquired to monitor and mitigate the effects of climate change"

Aliena has since secured separate orders from an undisclosed customer and has received interest from other enterprises for the use of its engines in their satellites.

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