El Camino Real Nanosatellite Mission
Momentus Space of Santa Clara CA, a Silicon Valley-based startup space transportation services company, developed a line of Vigoride orbital transfer vehicles that are designed to ferry CubeSats and other small payloads from low Earth orbit to higher altitudes.
Momentus's first mission will demonstrate a novel water-based propulsion system. Momentus developed the microwave electrothermal thruster, which uses water as a propellant, to power the company's Vigoride space tugs. Momentus named its first mission, based on a 16 U CubeSat built by Astro Digital of Santa Clara, CA, "El Camino Real"after the route built by early Spanish settlers in California.
The purpose of El Camino Real will be to flight demonstrate our core propulsion technology so customers, investors, and stakeholders can have absolute confidence that when they sign up for a Momentus Space service, it will be on time, safe and reliable. We will be flying our high performance X-band (10 GHz) microwave electrothermal thruster with enough water propellant that we will be able to run the thruster long enough to fully characterize its performance in space with dozens of stop start cycles and then safely de-orbit the vehicle. 1)
Figure 1: Photo of the El Camino Real 16U CubeSat during "glow" testing of its solar cells (image credit: Momentus)
Some background and development status
In March 2019, Momentus Space revealed some details of the transportation services it will offer small satellites seeking rides to medium Earth, geostationary or low lunar orbit. 2)
- Customers will have the option of purchasing their own rides into orbit and relying on the Vigoride Extended transfer vehicle to move satellites from their initial drop-off points to their final destinations. Or, customers can sign up for the Vigoride Extended Line, where Momentus handles all transportation from the ground to the customer's final orbit.
- "In the Line service, we act as a broker, booking dedicated rides or rideshares with our launch partners," Negar Feher, Momentus product and business development vice president, told Space News. "Launch partners bring the satellites to space. From that point, we take them wherever they are trying to go."
- Momentus has raised approximately $16 million since it was established in 2017. "We have all the funding we need to develop these platforms," Feher said.
- German launch services provider Exolaunch and Deimos Space of Madrid have announced plans to move satellites with Momentus' Vigoride and Vigoride Extended transfer vehicles. Vigoride is designed to raise satellites in low Earth orbit, deploy low Earth orbit constellations or move satellites to new planes in sun synchronous orbit.
- Vigoride Extended, with a preliminary price of $4.8 million, is designed to move satellites with a mass of 200 - 400 kg from LEO (Low Earth Orbit) or geostationary transfer orbit to geostationary orbit or lunar orbit, Momentus President Mikhail Kokorich said by email.
- Feher sees strong demand from customers seeking rides to geostationary orbit to claim orbital slots for communications satellites. ABL Space Systems, a Momentus launch partner, advertises rides to low Earth orbit for $12 million. "Now, it's so affordable you can launch a cubesat to geostationary orbit or to lunar orbit," Feher said.
- Momentus is preparing to demonstrate its water plasma propulsion system on an Astro Digital 16U CubeSat scheduled to launch 5 July on a Russian Soyuz rocket from Vostochny Cosmodrome. Two more Momentus launches are slated for 2020. The first Vigoride Extended mission is set for 2021.
- Through its Vigoride and Vigoride Extended Lines, Momentus will offer dedicated annual rideshare missions. "It will be the cheapest rides to GEO people have ever encountered," Feher said. "For example, you can take a 6U CubeSat to GEO with us for less than $2 million."
- Momentus expects to see growing demand for transportation to lunar orbit as NASA prepares to send astronauts to the moon in 2024.
- "There will be a lot of infrastructure work before people get there," Feher said. "We'll be there to support the missions scouting out landing sites and providing communications."
- Momentus has conducted extensive testing of its new propulsion technology on the ground. "We'll launch it this year to validate the testing we've done in the lab," Feher said.
• July 24, 2018: Mikhail Kokorich, the space industry investor who founded Russian small satellite builder Dauria Aerospace, is the founder and president of Momentus, a Silicon Valley startup focused on water plasma propulsion. 3)
- Momentus plans to demonstrate Vigor, its first water plasma thruster, by sending it into orbit in February 2019 on a 16U CubeSat launched from a Russian Soyuz rocket. In 2020, Momentus plans a flight demonstration of the Ardor thruster it is developing for its Ardoride propulsion system to power 500 to 1,000-kilogram spacecraft. For now, Momentus's Ardor technology is undergoing laboratory testing, Kokorich said by email.
- "We are developing the first in-space rockets powered by water plasma engines," Kokorich said. "We use solar energy to heat water with microwaves up to the sun's surface temperature and eject the superheated gas through the nozzle to create thrust. One of the main problems we solved is how to make sure that plasma will not vaporize the chamber walls and nozzle."
- Momentus is participating in Y Combinator, a startup accelerator based in Mountain View, California. After Y Combinator's demonstration day in August, the culmination of the three-month program, Momentus will announce plans to attract investment, including its fundraising goal, Kokorich said.
- Kokorich, who founded a home products retail chain in Russia before moving to the United States, is also a co-founder of Astro Digital, an Earth imaging and analysis firm based in Mountain View, and an investor in Helios Wire, a satellite-enabled internet of Things startup in Vancouver.
- Momentus is not alone in seeing the promise of water as a propulsion source. Deep Space Industries sells Comet, a water-based small satellite propulsion system. Tethers Unlimited offers Hydros, a water electrolysis thruster. And the Aerospace Corp. built water-fueled thrusters for the NASA Ames Research Center's Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration mission launched in November 2017.
Figure 2: This is an image of Momentus' Ardor thruster for Ardoride, a multi-kW propulsion system the firm is developing to power 500 to 1,000 kg spacecrafts. Momentus is testing the technology in its laboratory and plans to fly it for the first time in 2020 (image credit: Momentus Space)
Launch: The El Camino Real 16U CubeSat was launched as a secondary payload (along with other 32 secondary payloads) on 5 July 2019 (05:41:46 UTC) on a Soyuz-2-1b/Fregat rocket from Russia's far-eastern spaceport Vostochny Cosmodrome. The primary payload on this flight was the Meteor M2-2 weather and climate-monitoring satellite of Roskosmos. 4)
Orbit: El Camino Real was deployed into a sun-synchronous orbit of 580 km with an inclination of 97.7º.
Under the launch service contracts between the German company Exolaunch GmbH of Berlin and the Russian company JSC Glavkosmos, 28 satellites are being launched in the interests of Germany, France, USA, Israel, United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland, Thailand, Ecuador, Czech Republic and Estonia. 5)
All CubeSats on this launch are integrated into 12U and 16U EXOpod CubeSat deployers provided by Exolaunch. EXOpods were already successfully flown on multiple missions and deployed dozens of CubeSats. The deployment process and sequence of cubesats will be controlled by Exolaunch's electrical management unit EXObox to ensure safe and timely deployment. 6)
Table 1: Summary of payloads aboard the Soyuz launch on July 5, 2019
1) "Our First Mission, ‘El Camino Real', Is Ready To Fly," 14 January 2019, URL: https://momentus.space/2019/01/14/our-first-mission-el-camino-real-is-ready-to-fly/
2) Debra Werner, "Momentus reveals plans for Vigoride Extended Line service," Space News, 31 March 2019, URL: https://spacenews.com/momentus-vigoride-extended-line/
3) Debra Werner, "Introducing Momentus, a Silicon Valley startup focused on water plasma engines," Space News, 24 July 2018, URL: https://spacenews.com/momentus-developing-water-engines/
4) Stephen Clark, "Soyuz rocket and Fregat upper stage deliver 33 satellites to three different orbits," Spaceflight Now, 5 July 2019, URL: https://spaceflightnow.com/2019/07/05/soyuz-rocket-and-fregat
5) 32 small spacecraft ready for launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome as secondary payload," Glavkosmos, 28 June 2019, URL: http://glavkosmos.com/en/news/32-small-spacecraft-ready-for-launch-from
6) "Exolaunch has integrated 28 smallsats for July Soyuz launch," Space Daily, 3 July 2019, URL: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Exolaunch_has_integrated_
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).