Upper Peninsula aerospace company recognized for satellite thruster manufacturing

Dec 28, 2019

An aerospace company in the Upper Peninsula gained statewide recognition for its satellites last month.

 


Orbion is a space technology company based in Houghton that builds thrusters to move satellites around in space. 

In November, the Michigan Venture Capital Association named Orbion the 2019 Up and Coming Company of the year.

The award comes on the heels of Orbion recently raising nearly $10 million in funding to further expand its business. 

Orbion’s CEO Brad King expects a huge increase in the number of thrusters the commercial space market will need in years to come.

“For the past  50 years or so, if you count up all the satellites launched into space by every country on earth, it’s about 150 to 200 sattelites per year,” King said. “In the next two to five years, that number is going to jump from 2,000 to maybe even 7,000 satellites per year.”

His company aims to help meet that demand with a lower price point.

“(The industry has to make) enough thrusters to satisfy the new commercial space market… while also bringing the cost way down,” King said.

In the past, those types of propulsion systems cost roughly $2 million per thruster, and Orbion is making them three to five times cheaper. Orbion is also able to speed up production, as it's manufacturing thursters on an assembly line.

 

Orbion's thrusters are manufactured to fit on satellites that catch a ride into space on a rocket. 

 

“Up to 1,000 small satellites can ride one single rocket into space,” King said. “It’s like riding a bus. When the rocket gets into space, it lets all the satellites off. It’s effectively a bus stop.”

Once the rocket is in low-orbit space, Orbion’s thrusters move the satellites off the rocket. 

“So at that point, Orbion’s thrusters, which would be included on each of those satellites, are used to move the satellite from the bus stop — if you will — out to the destination orbit,” King said. 

Orbion’s technology was developed at Michigan Tech University, where King was a faculty member for many years. 

King’s company is a venture-backed startup company that got off the ground two years ago with help from Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation, Michigan Economic Corporation and Boomerang Catapult, to name a few. 

Orbion is one of many new aerospace companies launched in Michigan. Two years ago, ATLAS Space Operations, which provides satellite communications, chose Traverse City as its headquarters. 

In September, aerospace representatives from across the globe gathered in Traverse City to attend the second annual Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association conference. 

One of the conference’s main topics was finding a new launch site for rockets, and northern Michigan is being evaluated for the site. 

“Michigan is a logical choice due to its northern latitude,” Sean McDaniel, CEO of Traverse City-based Atlas Space Operations, told IPR during the conference. 

McDaniels told IPR that the industry will know in about six months if northern Michigan is chosen for the launchpad, and the site will be built within two years. 

With companies like Orbion and ATLAS continuing commercial space industry production, aerospace experts say the state of Michigan is poised to become a big player in the space industry.