Littleton, Colorado

Founder and President Michael VanWoerkem is looking to spark a revolution in microsatellites with electric propulsion.

In 2001, VanWoerkem launched his first startup, but 9/11 altered his plans. “I was going to be SpaceX before SpaceX,” he says. “I had plans on how to do reusable rockets and the cost of rockets down substantially.”

VanWoerkem, who previously worked for Lockheed Martin, says he “still had a foot in the door at Lockheed at the time, so I just put both feet back in the door.”

Photos Jonathan Castner

He again struck out on his own with ExoTerra a decade later. He’d grown frustrated with the pace of space exploration as he worked on the Orion crew module and other projects at Lockheed.

In 2006, NASA’s target was a manned mission to deep space by 2011. “In 2011, I was part of the team that saved it from cancellation, and we were promising Congress that we were going to be launching humans by 2017,” says VanWoerkem. “So in five years of working on the program, I had made negative one year of progress of actually launching people into space.”

It was time for a change.

ExoTerra’s original plan called for mining water on the Moon, allowing spacecraft to refuel en route to points beyond, including Mars. “[We] quickly realized that if NASA continued to make the same sort of progress they’d made on Orion, even if I succeeded and was mining water on the Moon, there would be no customers to pay for it yet.”

The company changed tactics and moved to manufacture hardware. “The overarching vision of ExoTerra is reducing the cost of gravity,” says VanWoerkem. “Overcoming gravity is the driving cost of most space programs. You need energy to launch all that mass into space, and that requires energy and big rockets. We’ve been trying to figure out: How do you reduce that launch cost?”

The water play on the Moon is one avenue. Electric propulsion is another, says VanWoerkem. “Electric propulsion is a much higher-efficiency propulsion system than your typical chemical system, so that allows you to use a lot less fuel to get where you’re going, which reduces the mass of the satellite you’re trying to lift off. So as we looked around the industry back in 2011, we noticed there had been a big shift towards microsatellites. Microsatellites had a real problem, in that there weren’t many propulsion options available to them.”

The void meant small were built without propulsion systems and therefore lack the capability to optimize their orbits after launch. VanWoerkem says the small size makes solar arrays difficult, another logistical hurdle.

“We developed a micro Hall-effect thruster,” says VanWoerkem. The technology uses highly energized electrons in a magnetic field to ionize neutral propellant and produce thrust. “We took Hall thruster technology and tried to miniaturize it down to a scale that can fit inside a satellite the size of a shoebox. I think we’re still the smallest Hall thruster out there right now.”

There are a number of selling points, he adds. “It’s smaller and lighter than other Hall thrusters. It takes less power to operate than a typical Hall thruster, and it has high efficiency that allows it to provide more impulse than other propulsive systems for Cubesats.”

VanWoerkem says it is a big innovation for microsats. “Right now, microsatellites just get dropped off and float and become orbital debris. What we’re trying to do is give them enough propulsion they can actually change their orbits, maintain their orbits, and they can deorbit at the end of mission so they don’t become an orbital debris problem.”

ExoTerra has its first three missions scheduled, beginning with a commercial communications satellite in mid-2021 followed by a NASA “Tipping Point” mission for a ExoTerra-built microsat outfitted with the company’s thrusters in early 2022.

“NASA recognizes there’s a problem in the space industry: People develop things, they can get them as far as they can on the ground with development, but nobody will fly it unless it’s already flown,” says VanWoerkem. “The Tipping Point program’s designed to take technologies NASA’s interested in and get that first flight out of the way.”

ExoTerra continues to offer engineering services, but the emphasis is now squarely on hardware. “We’re a bootstrapped company. I’m your stereotypical [entrepreneur] who started with $10,000, a garage, and a computer. We did a lot of engineering services-type work when we started, which paid the bills and kept the lights on, but we basically reinvested all the profit we got from that into developing hardware.”

That strategy, along with SBIR and NASA grants, enabled the company to pivot primarily from engineering into manufacturing, and it’s now paying off. “We’ve been growing rapidly in the last year,” says VanWoerkem. “We’ve doubled in size this year, so we needed to find a bigger space.”

It follows that ExoTerra moved into a new 11,000-square-foot home in September 2020. “It’s got a dedicated lab and production area for us as well, so it’ll give us a lot more room to put some more equipment in so we can start not just having a lab space area to work on prototypes.”

The facility includes a clean room and vacuum chamber to facilitate production and testing. The assembly line will have capacity for thrusters and other components as well as complete satellites.

“At these Cubesat scales, we’re able to provide three times the power of a typical Cubesat as well as enough propulsive capability for people to optimize their orbits or deorbit at end of life,” says VanWoerkem.

“Most satellites get their power from solar arrays, and since these spacecraft are so small, they just don’t have the surface area to collect sunlight, so we’ve been developing deployable solar array systems that allow them to collect more sunlight than they would otherwise. That allows us to both operate these Hall thrusters as well as provide more power to the payloads.”

Mining the Moon isn’t off the radar. “That’s still our dream,” says VanWoerkem, noting that ExoTerra has partnered with the Colorado School of Mines in Golden on the NASA Centennial Challenge to automate resource extraction in off-Earth environments. “My dream has always been reducing the cost of space to the point where we can start permanently putting humans in space.”

Challenges: The first flight for ExoTerra’s hardware in 2021, says VanWoerkem, and the subsequent NASA Tipping Point mission. “It’s a huge deal to get that first flight out of the way,” he notes “That Tipping Point mission will fly most of our technology all at once. We’ll have the arrays, we’ll have power distribution, we’ll have the Hall thruster. It’ll be demonstrating our microsatellite for the first time.”

Opportunities: ExoTerra will “focus on the Denver satellite market,” says VanWoerkem. “The microsat market is exploding right now. There’s well over 10,000 microsatellites that have been announced to be launched over the next five years, so we’re working to be part of as many of those as we can.”

Needs: “An investor,” says VanWoerkem. “We are actively looking for investors.”


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