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  • Accion Systems is revolutionizing space propulsion with its TILE system, which uses liquid propellant instead of gas.
  • The technology replaces bulky ionization chambers and external cathodes with thruster chips that emit positive and negative ions from an ionic liquid.
  • Accion Systems has received significant funding and has garnered support from various investors, positioning it as a leading player in the field of space propulsion.

Many kids have seen the dream of launching rockets right from Diwali ones to space kinds. I know, I have at least. Nevertheless, we never knew what an actual rocket consists of or what is the mechanism.

I am sure, all the physics and chemistry enthusiasts are ready to explain it, so here’s a quick intro on it for the ones who actually have a keen interest in knowing about missiles, propulsions, and whatnot!

Rockets or Spaceships are like hungry monsters, they need energy to get them to move forward or fly (to be precise). They get this energy from something called ‘plasma’. Now what on Earth is that?

Have you ever been to a ball house while you were a kid? Now imagine, that inside this house, there are two kinds of balls: blue balls and red balls. Just like any other balls, these love to bounce around and have fun. But, it has gotten too crowded, so we need to bounce them out of the house. There comes our star player called "Electrons" who are great at kicking the balls.

When these electron players kick the blue and red balls really hard, one of the balls loses its colors and transforms into special balls called "ions." These ions have a secret strength that helps them push things forward. Now, in order to push things forward, we need a path, right? 

Hence the balls roll from the back of the ball house to the front. This passage or the path represents the inside of a rocket which is technically known as an "ionization chamber." It's like a slide for these balls!

As the balls roll through the ionization chamber, they meet the electron players, who give them an extra kick. The electrons bump into the balls and turn more of them into ions. It's like having an awesome game of jumper-bumper balls! 

Just like that, the rocket powered by the ball house (which represents the ion thruster) starts moving forward in space. It's like a magnificent ball dance in the sky!

Long story short - the blue and red balls represent the gas, the electron players represent the electrons, and the ionization chamber represents the path inside a rocket. Together, they create a stirring propulsion process that propels the ball house (or rocket) forward.

This is the conventional way of how the rocket launches but what if I say that instead of gas, scientists are exploring the technique to use liquid? That's right, Accion Systems is one of those.

What is Accion Systems?

Accion Systems is a manufacturing company that aims to develop powerful thrust in a small package that controls missions with the most efficient propulsion system. How do we decide that it's the most efficient propulsion system?

Let's go back to basics and try to relate it with the unconventional method, a completely new technology of Accion Systems that redefines space mobility. Trust me, this is definitely out of the syllabus. P.S. - Don't forget the Ball House Mechanics.

Accion prefers to leave the gas behind, with an idea to aim for a liquid propellant party with an ionic liquid salt. It's like a hip alternative that adds some flair. This liquid is like that character in the movie who is super chill and non-pressurized, so no worries about explosive surprises.

Have you ever seen the Bollywood movie - Mission Mangal; where the satellite which was supposed to be taken to Mars, needed to be half the size in half the budget - meaning, in space, every gram counts. Thus, this new system is a space saver by being compact. What is this unique system called? TILE. 

TILE - Tiled Ionic Liquid Electrospray, according to Accion CEO Peter Kant in a recent interview with TechCrunch mentions - 

The TILE system is as versatile as a shape-shifting superhero. It can scale up or down, fitting snugly on anything from petite CubeSats to massive interplanetary spacecraft.

Kant emphasized that the market demand perfectly matches what they can offer, making it a rare and harmonious match-up. Although they did mention that the first fourth-generation thruster systems would be shipped in late summer 2022, I am sure they are on their way to making this revolutionary change in the era of space soon!!

For all the tech and space geeks -  Here are the features of TILE, that one should definitely know before being a part of it: (Source: Accion

  1. Power Processing Unit: The electronics are designed to maximize power conversion efficiency and limit waste heat, and can be mounted apart from the propellant supply and thruster chips.
  2. Propellant Supply Tank: As mentioned, the fuel source is an inert, non-toxic ionic liquid salt, stored in a low-pressure container similar to an inkjet cartridge.
  3. Thruster Chips: These thruster chips can emit both the positive and negative ions existing in the ionic liquid, eliminating the need for bulky ionization chambers and failure-prone external cathodes.
  4. Ion Emitter Tips: Each thruster chip is arrayed with hundreds of microscopic ion emitters. The ionic liquid is wicked to the emitter tips from the tanks below through capillary action.
  5. Ion Extractor Grid: A grid above the emitters applies intense electric fields to extract and accelerate ions from the emitter tips.
  6. Accelerated Ion Beams: Neutral beams of ions are ejected at high speeds from the thruster chip to propel the spacecraft in the opposite direction.
Components : Accion

 
TILE Propulsion comes with its own fair share of pros and cons -  

Bursting with unmatchable potential, this game-changer technology promises to propel us into a future filled with unbelievable possibilities. Let’s explore the awe-inspiring advantages of the TILE System, designed to outshine all other propulsion technologies. (Source: TILE_Accion

  1. Unmatched Efficiency: It has the highest thrust-to-power ratio on the market along with more space and power for critical payloads.
  2. Scalable Manufacturing: Ability to be mass-produced within less time and price. 
  3. Modular Flexibility: Since the composition is made up of units, it can easily distribute itself across the spacecraft. 
  4. Seamless Integration: Propulsion control integrates easily with existing mission control software as the interface is user-friendly.
  5. Extreme Resiliency: Thruster chip arrays are fault tolerant and eliminate common points of failure. The Mantra: “No external cathodes, no plasma, and no reactive emissions.”
  6. Multi-Mode Compatibility: Increase resiliency by combining the high thrust of chemical propulsion with the high efficiency of TILE, all with the same ionic liquid propellant. 
  7. Safe Propellant: Ionic liquid is an inert, inexpensive, non-toxic, and non-explosive source of propulsion. It’s stored in a low-pressure container to further reduce risk.

Comparison with other small satellite technologies :

Source: Accion

While every technological marvel has its drawbacks, the cons of the TILE System are mere blips compared to its mind-blowing potential. Emitter wear, which refers to the gradual erosion of the emitter surface, is a minor concern in the face of the extraordinary milestones achieved by this trend-breaking technology.

Picture this: Accion Systems has revolutionized the game with its tile-able system, a grid of power-packed thrusters ready to propel us to new heights.

The largest thruster, a compact marvel measuring a mere 35mm by 35mm by 16mm (including propellant), unleashes an astonishing 200,000 N of impulse, generating a thrust of 10 mN at an unprecedented isp of 1500 s. Isn’t it great? (“Electric Propulsion Part 2: Electrostatic Propulsion,” by Beyond NERVA )

Yes, this awe-cool technology comes with a price tag, but maybe it's worth every penny. 

Funding

Not just me, the funding reports of Accion clearly show how much belief the investors have in TILE. According to CrunchBase, Accion Systems has raised a total of $68.5M in funding over 8 rounds.

Their latest funding was raised on July 21, 2021, from a Series C round. In this round, the company raised $42 million in a Series C led by Tracker Capital, bringing its valuation to $83.5 million. Overall, Accion Systems is funded by 20 investors. Tracker Capital Management and Boeing HorizonX Ventures are the most recent investors. 

While the core team of 20 not only managed to receive such humungous funding but also collect a good chunk of partners in terms of knowledge, manufacturing, and technology. 

Partners of Accion

Well, the story of Accion is not just any other chapter of a book called ‘Space’ but rather a very inspiring movie like the patriotic ones where you feel that there's a lot one can do and achieve, once the momentum is established. 


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Edited by Shruti Thapa

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