All systems go: How Aliena, a space tech firm is scaling new heights

Aliena Thrusters

The achievements of Singapore space technology company Aliena are, quite literally, out of this world.

Next year, it will be the first Singapore space propulsion company to partner with the European Space Agency (ESA) to test its latest innovation, said Aliena’s chief executive Mark Lim, 34.

The company designs propulsion systems, called thrusters, for satellites to enable them to move to specified positions in space. Working with partners in the UK, it has co-created a more sustainable thruster that uses water for fuel.

That’s not all. In 2019, a Northern Territory based company, Paspalis Innovation Investment Fund invested into Aliena. The co-investment helped assist the company to launch a satellite into low orbit with its thruster technology. In January 2022, one of Aliena’s own thrusters was part of a satellite that went to space on a rocket launched by billionaire Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX. Aliena has also nearly quadrupled its income last year to 7 figures this 2022.

What is the secret to this young startup’s success in making its mark overseas?

“Innovation is what gives you the edge over your competitors,” said Dr Lim, 34, who co-founded the firm in 2018. Innovation and partnerships are important for local firms aiming to compete globally, he added.

The Eureka effect

Aliena, for its part, is on the verge of revolutionising the satellite industry with its co-creation of the thruster that uses water as fuel. Electric thrusters typically run on noble gases like xenon, which are very rare and expensive, explained co-founder and chief technology officer George-Cristian Potrivitu.

Prior to that, Aliena’s focus was on thrusters for small satellites. Dr Potrivitu, 31, noted:

“As satellites shrink, their engines must be more power- and fuel -efficient because of the reduced space for fuel and solar panels or batteries.”

The company, which currently has less than 10 staff, including its co-founders, invented a version that uses less than 10 watts of power – about 1 per cent of what a conventional Hall effect thruster (a type of electric propulsion system) consumes.

It also ignites on demand, explained Dr Potrivitu, unlike traditional ones which require up to 10 minutes to start.

Next year, the ESA will test its new sustainable and cost-effective alternative, paving the way for it to be deployed in some satellites potentially as soon as within the next 3 years.

Aliena designed the thruster’s hollow cathode, a critical component that acts like the spark plug in a normal combustion engine, as part of a project with Imperial College London and UK-based aerospace firm URA Thrusters. The project started under the Eureka GlobalStars-Singapore Call in 2020.

Eureka is the world’s largest public network for international cooperation in research and development.

Aliena’s Dr Lim said that the partnership with Imperial and URA Thrusters has been game-changing.

“We wouldn’t have been able to test the cathode in our own laboratory in Singapore, or get the opportunity to test it in the ESA,” he said.

“Satellite companies and research organisations from Europe, Asia and the US have contacted us about our cathode. We’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement with a very big satellite player in Europe that is interested in the thruster,” said Dr Lim.

Dr Potrivitu added: “Collaborating with companies and institutions that have been in the industry longer than us and are respected for their work can only help to bring our own status higher.”

Source: Feng Zengkun (The Business Times) with some edits.

Paspalis Innovation Investment Fund

Paspalis is one of Australia’s leading private investment firms. Their business aligns its interests with those of their investors and partners for lasting impact in Australia’s North.

Learn more about PIIF here.

Aliena Thrusters