Michigan-based in-space propulsion startup Orbion is working with a major new partner: The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Orbion has secured a research contract from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's Propulsion Directorate, specifically aimed at helping the DOD "enhance resiliency of U.S. systems in space."
Basically, it sounds like that will boil down to seeing how Orbion's propulsion technology can be applied to DOD satellites when used in larger constellation form, to provide those satellites with the ability to move propulsively while in orbit, and to do so in a way that can scale cost-effectively. In a press release announcing the news, Orbion CEO Brad King says that volume is a strategy when it comes to fortifying U.S. systems in space against potential foreign attack.
"One way to increase the resilience of space systems is to improve our nation’s ability to build and deploy small satellites in large numbers at low costs,” said King in a statement, “Orbion is developing mass-production techniques to build propulsion systems for commercial customers. With this research contract we are investigating how or if our manufacturing processes must be modified to meet DOD requirements.”
It's true that in the past, the U.S. and other international powers with access to space have mostly focused on large, expensive, singular pieces of orbital hardware as their strategic assets. Shifting to the small satellite constellation approach currently being pursued by a number of private companies definitely has advantages in terms of redundancy and replaceability.
Orbion's entire business proposition as a startup is that it's applying mass-production to in-space thrusters, which will bring down costs and make their technology accessible to a much wider range of potential clients, and practical for application in small satellite design. The DOD may not have the same budget-constraint issues as a cash-strapped satellite startup, but long-term cost savings that also comes with a tactical advantage is a hard bargain to pass up.