3D printing, Aerospace and Aviation, Features

Blasting Australian made components into space

Brisbane-based start-up Valiant Space has made history as it is amongst the first companies in Brisbane to send locally-made components into space. Manufacturers’ Monthly sits down with co-founder and CEO Andrew Uscinski to discuss the company’s growth and aspirations in the burgeoning Australian space industry.

Valiant Space was founded by three university students – Andrew Uscinski, Michael Douw and Benjamin Dodd – after they identified a gap in the market for space propulsion options that used non-toxic propellants. The team of three are mechanical and aerospace engineers who met at the University of Queensland and started the company in 2020 while they were still students.

“We were grouped together as a team in university around 2017, and we all wanted to influence the growing space industry in Australia,” Uscinski said.

That same year, at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, the Australian government announced the launch of the country’s first national space agency – the Australian Space Agency (ASA).

“At the time of founding, there were no in-space chemical propulsion providers in Australia,” Uscinski said.

“There are companies like Gilmore Space Technologies who are focusing on the launch segment, but what we are really focusing on is the in- space segment where collision avoidance, orbit maintenance, and deorbiting are really big factors. That capability had not existed in Australia yet.”

In 2020, the young entrepreneurs participated in the University of Queensland’s ilab Accelerator program, during which they were awarded $20,000 and received mentorship to grow their start-up. At the time, the team was building a tech demonstrator – a 1.5 kilonewton, moderately sized, rocket engine.

“That’s when we came up with the idea for the thruster with non-toxic propellants, which is our flagship product. The idea was brought on by a combination of a detailed market assessment that we conducted during the program, and the technology we were building over that time as a team,” Uscinski explained.

“We identified that the small propulsion system market or the small satellite market would be booming over the next decade. And with our skill set in propulsion, we were well positioned to do something meaningful in that space.”

The VS-1 non-toxic in-space thruster.
The VS-1 non-toxic in-space thruster.

Thrusters with non-toxic propellants Valiant Space manufactures a chemical thruster that provides the main propulsion system for the satellite and allows fast-acting orbit raising and collision avoidance manoeuvres. Existing thrusters used carcinogenic and difficult-to-handle chemicals that were expensive due to development costs.

“Traditional thrusters of our size and capability in the space industry have used hydrazine and other nasty chemicals, like dinitrogen tetroxide. These are chosen because they’re hypergolic propellants, which means that upon touching each other, they will spontaneously ignite; therefore, you don’t need an ignition source,” Uscinski said.

“On a handling front and hazards front, it’s incredibly dangerous – you have to ensure absolute leak tightness on all your systems, and you can’t have any cross contamination of propellants.”

Additionally, the people on the ground needed to be fully suited up in expensive Self-Contained Atmospheric Protection Ensemble (SCAPE) suits.

In contrast, Valiant Space’s thruster uses non-toxic nitrous oxide and propane – similar to what would be used in a barbecue but slightly more pure – which gives a comparable performance to the toxic options but without the need for high-cost handling infrastructure.

“In terms of the relative risk level, the amount of PPE required to handle these propellants is drastically reduced. And the overall process is simplified without the need for complex respirators or anything at all to be able to handle them,” Uscinski added.

The next challenge for Valiant was successfully launching the innovative product into space. This was realised when an integral part of Valiant Space’s thruster was sent into orbit with Elon Musk’s spacecraft company SpaceX, onboard Skykraft’s rideshare service from the Kennedy Space Center in the United States.

SpaceX launch

The journey to launching into space for Valiant was accelerated by securing $750,000 in funding from the Australian Government’s Moon to Mars Initiative supply chain grant, administered by the ASA.

This grant will help them in getting flight validation on their product, building the supply chain, and upscaling their propulsion technologies to domestic and international customers.

The team previously won a Moon to Mars Initiative demonstrator feasibility grant in 2021, to accelerate the growth and development of their non-toxic thruster technology.

“The first ASA grant in 2021 helped us prototype and test our product, which has been instrumental in gaining market traction and momentum,” Uscinski said.

“As part of that grant, we worked with a Canberra-based project partner, Skykraft, an Australian aerospace and satellite services company. Their Skyride rideshare program offers spare space on their satellites to be used as an experimental payload space.

“The coaxial solenoid valves, which we’ve developed and designed in-house and now manufacture in-house, are a critical component of our thrusters. They’re one of the only moving parts of the thruster and control the propellant flow and allow combustion to happen.”

Uscinski emphasised the importance of avoiding any leaks from the valve during the launch process and while in space.

The valves are undergoing the first major testing after being sent into orbit onboard SpaceX from the Kennedy Space Center.

“We put together a box containing the valve and a couple of instruments that we could use to measure the performance of the valve. And we’re currently waiting for the Skykraft team to do some testing to validate that performance. But it’s up there now and it’s likely to be around the next month or so when we’ll get some of that data back,” said Uscinski.

Once the valve proves it can survive a violent launch, 6-G gravitational force, extreme vibrations, and a wide range of temperatures on its journey into space, Valiant Space’s full thruster will be launched on a subsequent orbital mission in mid-2023.

“We’re happy to have secured our first customer already for our product, and additional propulsion systems and hardware, and a big next milestone for us is the launch of our thruster and our full propulsion system that we’re working with this customer,” Uscinski explained the next steps for the company.

“We’ve got integration of the propulsion system happening right now in our facilities with the customer’s spacecraft.”

Collaboration with ARM Hub

(left to right) ARM Hub CEO Cori Stewart with Minister for Regional Development and Manufacturing Glenn Butcher and Andrew Uscinski.
(left to right) ARM Hub CEO Cori Stewart with Minister for Regional Development and Manufacturing Glenn Butcher and Andrew Uscinski.

The support from the Queensland Government’s Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Hub has been crucial to the company’s success, according to Uscinski.

ARM Hub is funded by the Queensland Government, the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Urban Arts Project and the Innovation Manufacturing CRC.

“We were one of the first ARM Hub tenants in November 2020,” Uscinski said.

“ARM Hub offered us flexibility in leasing, which is fantastic for start-ups, and they have such a large warehouse that has allowed us to expand out as needed. The staff at ARM Hub have helped enormously by identifying funding opportunities and helping us write our first successful Moon to Mars grant. They’ve also helped us gain exposure to a variety of people, including potential investors and ministers and MPs.”

Valiant Space has since moved out of the ARM Hub and is operating from its own facility.

“Mid-last year, we realised we had some really big CNC machines and we realised we had outgrown the space that we had there. ARM Hub has been quite supportive and excited about seeing us transition to the next step of growing our company,” he added.

Challenges and opportunities in the Australian space sector Valiant Space is focusing on building Australia’s in-space propulsion capability, which has been traditionally procured from overseas. Valiant Space’s thrusters are 3D-printed and almost entirely

Australian made, which is an attractive value proposition to Australian and global companies.

The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) is the United States regulation that controls the manufacture, sale, and distribution of defence and space-related articles and services as defined in the United States Munitions List (USML).

“Companies do not want to deal with the challenges and logistics of ITAR regulations of components from the United States as it can be very frustrating,” said Uscinski.

“The problem with ITAR is that it’s quite pervasive in terms of what it covers. And it’s also incredibly strict and difficult to get approval, if at all, to use parts which have any potential dual use. If you get your valves from a vendor in the US, you’re highly likely to be subject to ITAR restrictions on your products, because those valves fall under that dual-use list. This is because valves can be used easily in either space applications or in missile or weapon systems applications.”

Uscinski added another of the challenges for new businesses in the space industry in Australia is the lack of base knowledge.

“This is because a lot of technology that start-ups in Australia have heritage overseas. Valiant Space has faced that on the propulsion front where we’ve done extensive testing on fluid properties, on flow rates, arc sizing and other aspects. In the long run, this has meant that we’ve got a very good understanding of the technology that we’ve developed,” he said.

“While Australia has grown in that homegrown knowledge base, it can sometimes be daunting when starting out to think that a comparable company or a comparable team in the US is able to easily rely on prior experience and knowledge that exists pervasively throughout universities and other areas.”

Uscinski said that the accessibility to space is greater than at any other time in history when discussing opportunities in the sector.

“There are so many facets to space exploration and commercialisation, within all engineering and related non- engineering disciplines. Space is just ripe for collaboration and that shared mission towards common goals. And that’s not something that you see in many other industries, because everyone knows how hard it is to develop space technology. It is surreal to be able to literally look up and see hardware crossing the sky that we know we’ve put up there.”

Uscinski pointed out the opportunities for Australia’s space industry in the homegrown push for missions locally – for Australian government-led or Australian commercially-led missions. The sector has seen tremendous growth of local companies like Skykraft, Fleet Space Technologies, Gilmore Space Technologies, Black Sky Aerospace, Hypersonix Launch Systems, and of course, Valiant Space.

“We are looking forward to when Australia itself and its ecosystem has matured because we’d love to be able to sell to domestic companies,” he said.

“Right now, our sales pipeline is mostly in the international market, where there are bigger market opportunities, but you’re also facing competition within those areas. We’re keen on being able to see an Australian presence in the sector – we’re an Aussie company and we want to support Australian industry.”

Send this to a friend