MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – Propulsion startup Phase Four is expanding its Maxwell plasma propulsion line by offering Max-V, an iodine-powered engine.
Prices have risen in recent years for the noble gases that power conventional electric propulsion engines, which is one of the reasons Phase Four is betting on iodine.
Another is domestic production. Unlike the noble gases that often come from Ukraine, Russia and China, iodine is available in Oklahoma.
“The U.S. is the third largest producer of iodine in the world, and all of the U.S. iodine comes from Oklahoma,” said Phase Four CEO Beau Jarvis. SpaceNews. “There are no supply chain constraints or volatile cost components.”
Under a contract awarded last year by the US Air Force’s AFWERX program, Phase Four began work on propellant iodine.
That contract “allowed us to start working with iodine and understanding how to flow it, how to store it, how our propellant interacts with it,” said Phase Four CEO Beau Jarvis. “It accelerated our early-stage research with iodine.”
Now, Phase Four is focused on developing and testing iodine propulsion “to prove to our customers that it works and that it’s safe to use,” Jarvis said.
Phase Four plans to begin commercial sales of the Max-V engine in the second half of 2023.
“We want the industry to understand that you have a non-noble gas option for satellites starting to launch in late 2023 or early 2024,” Jarvis said. “We want people to understand their options.”
Max-V engines are designed for a wide range of spacecraft, with power requirements from 200 watts to more than a kilowatt.
Six of the initial Phase Four Maxwell engines are currently in orbit. Another six have been delivered to customers.
Jim Bridenstine, a former NASA administrator and Republican congressman, joined the Phase Four board in September because he is convinced that the spacecraft will require multiple propulsion, both chemical and electrical, in a single system, which is the ultimate goal of Fourth Phase.
“What we need is to be able to maneuver without regret,” Bridenstine said in an Oct. 13 keynote speech at the Satellite Innovation conference here. “We have to be able to have high delta-V maneuverability and we also have to have high Isp [specific impulse] in the same system, not a hybrid with two stove systems.”
For national security missions, high delta-V offers the ability to maneuver quickly to avoid collisions or kinetic threats, Bridenstine said. For commercial satellites, the combination promises to lower propulsion costs and improve performance, he added.
Eventually, multiple propulsion systems could be refueled in space, Bridenstine said.