Astra to sell electric thrusters to Airbus OneWeb Satellites

TITUSVILLE, Fla. — Astra Space announced Aug. 29 it won a contract from Airbus OneWeb Satellites to provide electric propulsion systems for the Arrow line of small satellites.

Astra said that Airbus OneWeb Satellites will acquire an unspecified number of its Astra Spacecraft Engines, an electric propulsion system, for Arrow satellites. Astra did not disclose or answer questions about the number of thrusters ordered or the value or duration of the deal.

The Astra Spacecraft Engine is an electric thruster that uses xenon or krypton as propellants. Astra offers two versions of the thruster, one that requires 400 watts of power and produces up to 300 kilonewton-seconds of total impulse, and another that uses 1,450 watts of power and produces up to 1.5 meganewton-seconds of total impulse.

The thruster was originally developed by a startup, Apollo Fusion. Astra, which started as a launch vehicle developer, acquired Apollo Fusion in 2021 as part of an effort to obtain technologies it needed for its vision of a vertically integrated company that could produce spacecraft as well as rockets.

Astra, in a quarterly earnings call Aug. 4, said it had received more than 100 “committed” orders for the Astra Spacecraft Engine through the end of the second quarter, and announced it was leasing a new 5,575-square-meter facility that will be devoted to production of the engine. Engine production will ramp up by the middle of 2023, although the company didn’t give an estimate of how many it expects to produce.

Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, said in the earnings call that customers of the Astra Spacecraft Engine are attracted by features such as a higher specific impulse, a measure of engine efficiency, as well as experience of having operated “hundreds of times” in space to date. “It’s very cost competitive, and as we work with our customers, we’re trying to strike that balance of offering a product that is high performance and lower cost,” he said.

In that same earnings call, Astra announced it was discontinuing its existing launch vehicle, the Rocket 3.3, after its most recent launch failure in June. The company is now focusing on a larger vehicle, Rocket 4, but test flights of that vehicle won’t begin until some time in 2023, and executives cautioned the new vehicle might not be ready for commercial, revenue-generating launches before the end of 2023.

In the near term, Astra expects its revenue to be dominated by sales of its Astra Spacecraft Engine. “If you look at 2023, what we’re looking at in terms of revenue forecasts will largely be spacecraft engines,” Kemp said.

Airbus OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture of satellite constellation company OneWeb and Airbus Defence and Space, did not disclose how the company plans to use the thrusters. The company is best known for producing the first generation of OneWeb satellites at its facility near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida but is also signing up commercial and government customers for its Arrow smallsat bus.

Airbus OneWeb Satellites had previously used electric propulsion systems from Fakel, a Russian company, for the OneWeb satellites it produced. However, those thrusters are no longer available after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions.

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