The new technology could dramatically improve satellite propulsion and be used to advance space travel

By Michael Cogley

A British start-up that is developing interplanetary plasma thrusters to propel satellites through space has received government funding.

Magdrive, which is based in the Harwell Campus near Oxford, has been granted £64,200 to develop its tech as part of a funding round from the UK Space Agency.

The global space propulsion market is already worth around $5.8bn (£4.15bn) but has been tipped to grow to $19.3bn by 2027. Growth in the sector is likely to be driven by demand for lost-cost small satellites, which can be used for anything from communications to data gathering.

Magdrive, which was founded in 2019, has built a thruster for the satellites that will allow them to move in space and navigate space debris.

The plasma thrusters, which were developed alongside Rocket Engineering, are around the size of a can of coffee. 

The company, which closed a £1.4m seed round in December, claims its technology will allow satellite companies to operate on completely different business models. Advertisement

Magdrive claims its plasma thruster burns 100 times hotter than that of a rocket with the outlay contained by a magnetic field.

In a plasma state, the propellant becomes highly electrically reactive by moving through magnetic coils. This hot plasma exhaust provides the thrust.

The technology has the potential to replace existing electrical and chemical alternatives, which face problems around thrust and efficiency.

Advancing space travel

The start-up says the technology could ultimately help propel interplanetary travel, since the thrusters theoretically offer greater acceleration than current models. 

In the short term, the company said its thrusters will provide “unrivalled combination” of thrust and weight for small spacecrafts.

“In the longer term, successful development of a supermagdrive may allow UK space missions to travel into interplanetary space, prospect among the asteroids and even enable new forms of launch system not possible with today’s chemical propulsion systems,” the company said.

The Space Agency funding was part of a wider round worth around £300,000, which backed four further projects.Advertisement

Salisbury-based Lena Space is developing a rocket engine for launch vehicles received £74,080. The University of Leeds was granted £74,969 to continue its research into technology to identify hard to see gases in the atmosphere.

Elsewhere Archer Technicoat, an Oxfordshire-based company, aims to develop new tech around spacecraft propulsion to make them more efficient. It was granted £72,778.

Finally, Spottitt, which builds automated monitoring services for waste and mineral sites using satellite imagery received £50,296.

Charles McCausland, head of major projects and technology development at the Space Agency, said the five projects promised to “pave the way” for future space innovation.

“As the UK extends its ambitions for the space sector, early support of this kind could prove decisive in helping us get ahead in an increasingly competitive global environment,” he said.

Amanda Solloway, the  Science Minister, said the investment would help fast-track the emerging technologies.

“From observing climate change from space to protecting our satellites from hazardous space debris, these technologies could expand our reach in space and improve life here on Earth,” she said.​