You may not have known that space needs tugs, but now you do – and Atomos Space has just completed a $16.2 million Series A investment that will allow the company to complete its demonstration mission where it will show off its docking and towing capabilities. The company is building a series of Orbital Transfer Vehicles (OTV) that make it possible to reposition satellites in space. The theory is that by making it possible to launch flying objects into different orbits, they don’t have to have full navigation capabilities themselves, which in turn should make piloting spacecraft much cheaper. The company claims that its existence effectively cuts satellite operators’ launch costs in half.
The company is starting with high-performance electric propulsion systems and is happy to share that it sees those propulsion methods as springboards for its nuclear OTV options, which can travel faster and farther and offer commercial mobility services. The company is also positioning itself to be able to use these technologies for deflecting asteroids, effectively Harry Stamper unemployed.
“I worked on launcher design, then spacecraft propulsion system design, and also some advanced technologies for moving in space, and I quickly realized that the way we do space logistics is not optimal. The best analogy we use is with airplanes. Imagine, you have a single-use plane, you are the only passenger and you have to take everything with you, you can’t do any shopping on the way. So if you want to drive around your final destination, you have to take the car and you have to bring gasoline with you,” explains Vanessa Clark, CEO and co-founder of Atomos Space. “Ultimately it is very expensive and limited. What we really need is a hub-and-ghost logistics model for space. This allows us to do some really cool stuff, commercial missions like Earth observation, global communications, broadband internet, but it also allows us to take the next step as a species and do more things in deep space that are economically and from a make sense from a scientific perspective. .”
This is the company’s third round of VC funding and so far it has built and tested on the ground, including the docking and propulsion systems. The next big step is to fly the first vehicle.
“The has a lot of autonomy. We are working on a self-propelled satellite that can detect a customer, navigate to a customer and grab it safely. We have the ability to optimize our propulsion system to operate alone in space, as opposed to a launch vehicle that also has to be designed to go inside space,” Clark emphasizes the company’s competitive advantage. “That means we can go further and use less propellant. With this new round of financing, we are completing construction of our first two vehicles, and we have booked a launch in just under 12 months. It will be a very exciting mission, where we will drive two full-size commercial vehicles.”
The technology’s first use cases are to deliver launched satellites to their final destinations and to move satellites mid-mission. When vehicles reach the end of their shift, they can be moved to cemeteries or disposal jobs so they can burn up in the atmosphere.
“Our goal as a company is to make any orbit as accessible as low Earth orbit (LEO). On Earth, if you want to send something abroad, it’s as easy as sending a package to the next city. You just go to the post office. We want that to be possible for space,” explains Clark. “We want to operate a fleet of orbital transit vehicles in orbit that can provide the massive missions for a range of customers, spacecraft, space station operators and also companies and agencies that want to explore beyond the atmosphere.”
The company is particularly excited about nuclear propulsion in space and is investing heavily in it, telling us it offers an order of magnitude improvement in speed and payload.
With the current round of funding, the company says it will double the size of the team and launch the first two OTVs in early 2024. The investment was led by Cantos Ventures and the Yamauchi No. 10 Family Office (that’s the family that founded Nintendo), with the participation of Upheaval Investments, Dolby Family Ventures, Arden Road Investments, Elefund and Techstars.