Simon Halpern is a founder and the CEO of Phase Four, a plasma propulsion company based in Los Angeles. He has 10+ years’ space industry experience working at Ball Aerospace, Northrop Grumman and Spire Global. In 2014 he co-founded and served as VP of Business Development of Aether Industries, a high-altitude balloon company. He started Phase Four in 2015.
Ahead of Simon’s talk in the Commercializing New Technologies session at Space Tech Conference, Conference Director Mindy Emsley spoke to him about his experience of founding Phase Four and breaking into an industry dominated by established players, and got the latest on the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster being developed for DARPA.
ME: Mindy Emsley
SH: Simon Halpern
ME: Please tell us about your role as founder and CEO of Phase Four. What are your key focus areas and responsibilities?
SH: I founded Phase Four as the only employee, so my role early on was bringing together a multi-disciplinary team with a good understanding of the technology and the market we are entering. I sought out experts with a data-driven mindset (the best decisions are made with data) as well as a strong sense of urgency.
My primary focus is getting the first product to market quickly, followed by making continuous improvements. This means ground-based as well as space-based testing to prove the capabilities of the CAT (CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster) to a point that customers turn LOIs into contracts. Some customers are asking specifically for ground-based testing; others would like to see us fly in space. We are rapidly approaching both milestones. Another focus area has been to build the company from day one with scaling in mind. Our initial setup allows us to perform small-batch assembly, testing and QA, but we have an eye toward larger-scale production and sublicensing.
ME: What would you say are the key challenges and opportunities you face at present?
SH: A key challenge is taking a laboratory experiment and turning it into a commercial product. I live for the opportunity to do something that’s never been done before, something that can make a difference and have a real impact on businesses and lives on Earth.
ME: Space has been an industry dominated by “establishment” names for many years. What is Phase Four’s approach to building credibility in a traditionally older and established industry?
SH: Some of us have an inherent understanding of the “establishment”, having been at large organizations (Northrop Grumman, JPL, US Air Force) for some time before joining Phase Four. We look to hire experts with establishment experience as well as people from outside of the establishment or even the aerospace world. By building up our test data and flight experience, we’re able to show the data that establishment players want to see to know that Phase Four is the real deal. That being said, the phrase “that’s how it’s always been done” is never an acceptable statement within Phase Four.
ME: What advice would you give a budding space startup that you wish you had known when founding Phase Four?
SH: Be prepared for everything to take longer than you expect, every damn thing. Even if you can move fast, I can say with a high degree of confidence that software never works right on version one, hardware gremlins always appear and launches never happen earlier than expected. Beyond technical delays, finding the right investors, the right legal counsel, the right employees and the right location can all take an incredible amount of time and energy.
ME: Phase Four has successfully developed a propelled rocket engine that can get satellites into proper orbit faster and with lighter fuel loads than current technology. What impact do you foresee your technology will have on the satellite launch market?
SH: New orbits will be opened up, which means previously impossible or prohibitively expensive missions will become possible. The short answer is that you may see a reduction in excess supply on launches, because customers will no longer have to wait for their ideal launch.
ME: Last year Phase Four received a $1m contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), in support of the effort to deliver a fully integrated flight unit of the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster (CAT). What’s the latest on this project? How far has it progressed?
SH: In December we completed the first prototype. This included a thruster, propellant tank, propellant management system and a PPU (power processing unit). We collected enough data to show that the concept was sound and we could generate thrust using our RF Helicon plasma source and permanent magnets.
In mid-April we completed integration of our engineering unit. The engineering unit incorporated lessons learned from the prototype to increase performance. We put all components in cubesat form factor, taking up about 1U (propellant tank + PPU + propellant management system) plus the “tuna can” (thruster). Throughout May we will be gathering thrust, Isp and other performance parameters of interest. In parallel, we are working on qualification testing (TVac, Vibe, EMI, pressure vessel) the complete system to ensure we meet or exceed range safety and other general environmental requirements.
Moving forward, we expect to deliver a flight unit to DARPA later this year.
ME: How is the technology at Phase Four unique?
SH: CAT is a different design than typical electric propulsion systems, especially EP systems in its size/power category, which includes certain Hall thruster and ion engines. We use a magnetic field to shape and direct the plasma to create thrust in a compact and scalable design. The design is scalable from cubesats all the way up to the largest geosynchronous communications satellites. Additionally, there are no metal parts (electrodes) exposed to the plasma, which makes a huge difference because it eliminates the main failure points of Hall thrusters and ion engines. These items combine to form a very high thrust-to-power ratio, up to 120 millinewtons per kilowatt, revolutionizing the mission capability of the small satellite.
Furthermore, a lack of electrodes opens up a huge range of propellants, which is something most other EP thrusters, and even most propulsion systems on the market, aren’t capable of. That range of propellants translates into different performance characteristics, opening up a large variety of mission possibilities for commercial, government and scientific applications. We can use everything from common EP propellants like xenon, argon and krypton, to next-generation propellants like solid iodine, galinstan and even liquid water.
ME: We’re looking forward to welcoming you to Space Tech Conference. Can you tell us what you are looking forward to about the show?
SH: I particularly enjoy wandering around the exhibit hall looking for cutting-edge technologies, materials or companies to engage with in a meaningful way. Whether it turns into a business relationship or simply a friendly conversation about manufacturing techniques, I always end up learning something new and interesting at the Space Tech Conference.
You can hear more from Simon Halpern, CEO, Phase Four - 3:15comments powered by Disqus