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University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships
University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships

Phase Four makes satellites maneuverable with the Cubesat Ambipolar Thruster (CAT)


Phase Four is shooting for the stars with its revolutionary technology that will significantly improve the value of satellites in space. Using plasma propulsion technology licensed from the University of Michigan, Phase Four is pioneering the ability for CubeSats (small satellites) to move in space versus travel in a set orbit.

The company received a DARPA award to pursue this technology and bring it to market quickly; Phase Four has one year to take its technology from the lab to space. “There’s an unmet need for small satellites to have propulsion capabilities,” said Phase Four co-Founder and CEO Simon Halpern. “Our technology means the difference between travelling a fixed path versus being able to perform much needed maneuvering capability. I’d compare it to the difference between an unpowered glider and an airplane with an engine.”

“Small satellites can collect interesting and commercially relevant data, but now, wherever a small satellite gets dropped off is essentially where it stays,” said Halpern. “Today, many small satellites will sit in orbit for about a year, and then burn up in the atmosphere. With Phase Four’s CAT engine, that satellite will be able to move – travel to a target, avoid collisions, speed up or slow down, and stay up for additional months or years if needed.

While other companies are focused on adding functionality to satellites, Phase Four is focused on making them more efficient. “Phase Four’s CAT electric propulsion system is lightweight and powerful,” Halpern explained. “Customers and investors are excited about Phase Four’s work because they see the potential that results from adding in-space propulsion to the nascent small satellite market. Typical electric propulsion systems are large, expensive, and complex. By using a novel design, we have been able to shrink the technology to move in space from the size of a car to a the size of a coffee mug.”

phasefour2Not only did this technology originate through research done at University of Michigan, the Office of Innovation Partnerships has provided ongoing support to Phase Four. “Innovation Partnerships has been helpful with securing the right patents for our technology,” Halpern explained. “And, we continue to leverage the expertise behind the research that created our technology.”

The expertise has helped Phase Four create a functioning prototype of its technology and set it on a path to create a version at the form factor that will go to space. By August 2016, the company will have turned that flight-like unit in to an actual flight unit that will be space-ready.

“It’s important to get to space quickly,” said Halpern. “We’re taking more of a Silicon Valley approach, moving quickly to iterate and improve our design. The market for sales to satellite manufacturers and operators is growing quickly, and being the one of the first to make a game-changing product available sets us on the fast track for long term success.”