How one team pushed the boundaries of innovation and cracked the code for advanced space propulsion
Nearly 60 years ago, Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite—a heavy, metal sphere the size of a beach ball—was launched into orbit with highly explosive rocket fuel.
And in the decades since, larger, more powerful satellites have used these fuels as a source of power. Engineers had dabbled with safer, cleaner ways to maneuver their spacecraft, but no one ever kicked the chemical habit.
Until last year, when Boeing engineers successfully deployed a pair of satellites, the 702SP, featuring patented xenon-ion powered, all-electric propulsion, stacked one atop the other, into geosynchronous orbit.
Not only did Boeing’s technology work, it revolutionized the way the industry designs and manufactures satellites on a global scale. Another pair was launched earlier this year.
In particular, the 702SP team implemented all the 15 developments needed to fly and prove out this new design in less than four years, when comparable systems have taken closer to six or seven years to deploy. This timeline has yet to be met in the industry, and the competition is still working to match this level of performance.
For this advancement in the state of the art, Boeing has awarded the inventors of this propulsion system its Special Invention Award, which annually honors innovators for technological achievements in aerospace.
Pioneering this new technology was no easy feat for inventors Jim Peterka, Glenn Caplin and Rich Aston. When the project began nearly five years, everyone knew that satellites required at least a little bit of chemical fuel to create the kind of thrust satellites needed. Ion space propulsion had been studied for decades, but little was known about how the spacecraft would react to using all-ion propulsion. And what if something went wrong once the satellite was in orbit? Repairs are extremely difficult to make once the product is in space. These were the risks the team took, and they paid off.
Because it doesn’t carry the heavy fuel and bulky chemical thruster, the 702SP has a significantly reduced mass compared to its predecessors, Aston explained. This allows a rocket that would only be able to fit and carry one satellite to carry two.
“We cracked the code for controlling satellites by taking a risk with the removal of chemical propulsion,” Peterka said. “We knew there might be a downside, but you have to take risks. As long as we found the winning solution, and applied the right people, we knew we could win and stay ahead of the competition.”
The Xenon Ion Propulsion System, or XIPS, uses the impulse generated by a thruster ejecting electrically charged particles at high velocities. Rigorous testing showed that solar panels could generate the electricity needed to ionize and accelerate the xenon gas. The spacecraft’s propulsion system contains a sufficient quantity of xenon to extend the satellite’s operations beyond the expected spacecraft design life of 15 years, according to data from Boeing Satellite Systems International.
“It’s been commercialized into our products,” Aston said. “We’re gaining market share, gaining a competitive advantage and it’s being replicated by our competitors.”
Tell anyone on the street you work in satellites and you’re bound to get a lot of questions.
“It’s not a normal job, so people are curious,” said Aston, a Boeing Senior Technical Fellow. “There’s a really cool, cutting edge aspect of the satellite technology that not many people understand.”
Aston recalls the many mentors he encountered as a young engineer at Boeing. His fondest memories were his conversations with veteran technologists who began their careers at Douglas Aircraft Company and helped design fighter jets like the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.
“They took me under their wing and taught me how to design correctly using materials and fabrication,” he said. “I was very fortunate to learn from these engineers.”
This early exposure to mentorship continues to influence his work philosophy today. Aston says he makes every effort to pay it forward by mentoring younger, up-and-coming engineers, like Anna Tomzynska.
Tomzynska was provided many opportunities to flex her mental muscles on technically challenging projects during her 13-year mentorship with Aston. For example, the two were co-inventors on several new technologies included in the 702SP launch, which landed her a previous Boeing Special Invention Award.
“Anyone who has worked with Rich can attest that he inspires others to achieve their best. He often reminds me to make sure I’m constantly learning in whatever endeavors I pursue,” she said.
Relishing his achievement, Peterka, program manager for the 702 product line for Boeing Commercial Satellite Systems, said it all began with an early fascination of space and the unknown. Peterka began his career as a Boeing engineer in the 80s, and began tinkering on high performance satellites in 90s. As a child who came of age during the space race and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he was enthralled with outer space and anything we can do to expand our knowledge of it. His father and uncle, both engineers, also encouraged his love of space and science.
“My uncle worked for Northrup and was part of the great wave of inventors back in the 60s,” Peterka said. “We talked a lot about technology and science. I knew engineering was a career that would allow me to learn something new every day.”
Tomorrow’s innovators should also remember that inventing isn’t easy, Aston added. “If you choose innovation and inventing, you have to be tenacious. You have to be willing to withstand a few failures. If it were easy, the other guys would be doing it.”
By Jill Hulings