Aliena Propulsion System

Space tech start-up Aliena designed the thruster for a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was launched into space in January.

One of life’s greatest paradoxes is that stability can sometimes be a source of restlessness.

This was certainly the case for the CEO of Aliena and Space Expert-In-Residence to the Darwin Innovation Hub (DIH), Dr Mark Lim. In 2019, he left his job as a physics teacher at Dunman High School to focus on the start-up he co-founded a year ago.

“I had a comfortable and decent paying job. Life was good,” he says. “But I enjoy being challenged. I think that the more difficult something is, the more joy I get out of it. I was looking for the adventure of a lifetime.”

But to some of his friends and family members, the 34-year-old was undergoing a premature mid-life crisis. But his head wasn’t in the clouds — it was in space.

On 14 January, a Hall effect thruster departed the planet on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The brainchild of Lim’s space tech start-up Aliena, the ion thruster is part of a nano-satellite designed by NuSpace, a start-up under the National University of Singapore.

Lim said the support from DIH and subsequent investment from the Paspalis Innovation Investment Fund (PIIF) allowed Aliena to rapidly commission a privately owned Jet Propulsion Test Facility in Singapore that led to the development and deployment of its 1st engines in space out of SpaceX’s Transporter-3 mission.

Propulsion systems, however, aren’t Aliena’s key offering. Lim points out that the main purpose of his space tech company is to provide data to terrestrial businesses operating in sectors like defence, maritime and aviation by sending small imaging satellites into space.

Aliena’s unique selling proposition? Their small satellites will operate in the zone known as very low earth orbit (VLEO), located approximately 250 to 450 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. This allows for higher resolution images compared to those from satellites that operate at higher altitudes.

The next key advantage is that Aliena’s smaller satellites are significantly cheaper than conventional ones, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The result is what Lim describes as a “democratisation of space access”. This comes at an opportune time as more and more companies are considering launching small satellites into the VLEO to avoid the higher reaches of space that is already overcrowded with larger satellites.

Inquiries from companies in Europe and the United States have poured in. Lim expects business to soar in the coming years as the space race heats up. Singapore, too, has a dog in this sprint. In early February, the government announced an investment of $150 million into the research and development of space capabilities.

The aim is to not only create jobs, but push for technological advancements that would benefit more land-bound sectors that are important to the nation.

Aliena is currently working on its first locally produced satellite, which comprises existing components available on the market and a propulsion system created completely in-house. Lim expects to launch the satellite in 2024. When that happens, Aliena will have made the first Singaporean satellite in the VLEO. While the journey to achieving the next milestone is exciting, Lim concedes it is also fraught with challenges.

“My life now is like living in a house that’s constantly on fire. Every day, I’m just trying to put them out,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s also very rewarding to see this venture grow and gain traction in the field.”

Source: Alywin Chew