A mobile mechanic for the space industry
Lúnasa wants satellites to live longer with its two-stage tech
Make space more sustainable: that’s what today’s startup wants to do.
In practice, that means a novel approach to servicing, repairing, and maybe one day even upgrading, satellites that might otherwise become space junk long before their time. Scroll down to read all about Lúnasa.
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Lúnasa is a space-age mobile mechanic
We increasingly rely on satellites for connectivity, navigation, defence, and research. But if the control system fails early in a satellite's lifespan, it can’t do what it was supposed to do. The result? Wasted money and effort, and extra space junk cluttering the space around our planet.
Lúnasa is a startup gearing up to combat that problem–and many others–with a constellation of orbital maintenance stations.
Here’s how it will work in the case of a failed propulsion system: A Lúnasa satellite will be launched into space on the upper stage of a rocket. Once in space, it will settle into low-Earth orbit. On board the satellite are tiny “life-extension” units, around the length of an adult human’s arm.
These units can then be released (as seen in the image above) and manoeuvred to dock with a faulty satellite. Once hooked up, the Lúnasa unit provides control system takeover for the satellite, which means it can be operated as normal for its usual lifespan.
Once the satellite’s work is done, the Lúnasa unit can de-orbit it to dispose of it by burning it up in the atmosphere.
But that’s just one use case for the tech. Founder and CEO Amin Chabi explains that the startup’s first focus is on “in-space logistics”; helping satellites get into optimal orbit and position when their launch vehicles don’t have the capability to do this.
He says the tech could also be used for robotic assembly in space or transporting cargo to a space station. And the units themselves are reusable, intended to remain in space, carrying out multiple missions over a five-to-seven year lifespan.
Why do we need space maintenance?
The case for space maintenance is significant, Chabi says. This is particularly true as the space industry expands, and companies like Starlink as well as many experimental startups populate the space above our heads with more than 8,000 satellites.
There could be tens of thousands more joining them in the years to come.
“Even if, let's say 30,000 of those get to space, around a third of them will die early,” says Chabi.
“If they die early, they will remain up there as debris for a very long time. By the end of this decade, we could reach about 20 to 25% of the assets in space [having] failed.”
“Others say the best approach is to come and capture the debris and remove it, like the garbage man of space. What we are saying is we can extend their life so they can remain in orbit for longer.
“If a satellite was built for 20, 30, or 50 million dollars, its operator can use that asset to generate more revenue, for longer.”
First steps in the stars
The next step for Oxfordshire-based Lúnasa is to get its technology up and running in space. A demonstration mission is in the works, and the startup wants to put a constellation of its servicing vehicles in low-Earth orbit after that.
Low-Earth orbit is where the initial commercial demand is. And Chabi says it’s a good place to test the product’s docking procedures in the field for the first time. Docking will rely on a combination of dedicated hardware and A.I. software developed by the startup.
Assuming all of that goes to plan, the next step on the roadmap (or should that be ‘star chart’?) will be to begin serving satellites in geostationary orbit. Eventually, Lúnasa wants to take its services to the Moon, where there are a growing number of satellites.
“As we speak, the only way for satellites to be removed from lunar orbit at the end of their life is by crashing into the moon,” says Chabi.
“And that cannot continue for a long time if you want humans living over there. So there's a growing demand for servicing satellites and potentially removing them from those orbits to a ‘graveyard’.”
Chabi has a Master’s degree in Aeronautics and Space Engineering. Since obtaining that, he’s been involved in a project to test biology in space and another to develop an electric propulsion system for use in space.
Unusually, for someone with this kind of experience, he also has commercial chops, having worked in marketing, sales, investment, and business development, including a stint in Dubai’s real estate sector. It’s certainly a “mixed background” as he puts it, but not at all a bad combination of skills to have accumulated.
Now with Lúnasa, he wants to “make space more sustainable.” The startup has grown to a team of 11 since its beginnings in late 2020, largely consisting of experienced space engineers.
“After founding the company, I went out to pitch the idea and the mission to a few really well positioned engineers, saying ‘this is what we want to do, come in and build this together’. They left well-paying comfortable jobs, coming to a startup.”
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