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Vermont’s Benchmark Space Systems Makes Satellites More Maneuverable

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Ryan McDevitt - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Ryan McDevitt

What goes up must come down — and that can be a problem for companies that rely on satellite-based technology. Burlington-based Benchmark Space Systems has an answer: a propulsion system that allows small satellites to maneuver in orbit and defy the pull of gravity.

The 4-year-old company installs intricate mechanical components on small satellites that emit short, controlled bursts of gas to correct and stabilize their trajectory, making it possible to reposition a satellite as needed.

Demand for products like Benchmark's is increasing as the number of businesses chucking hardware into orbit grows exponentially. Small satellites, referred to as "smallsats," have become essential to Earth-imaging companies, which collect the data used to study everything from natural phenomena such as weather patterns to complex movements of people and their effects on the economy and society. For instance, a count of cars in a Walmart parking lot could theoretically be extrapolated to predict oil futures.

Satellites are also vital to telecommunications companies, which use them to provide space-based cellphone coverage, replacing the cell towers that now dot Earth's landscape.

Just as computers have shrunk from room-size behemoths to devices that can fit in your pocket, satellites have scaled down from the size of a school bus to that of a microwave oven. After hitching a ride into orbit through rideshare services like Spaceflight, a sort of Uber to space, smallsats need to reposition themselves to carry out their missions and avoid other craft. That's where Benchmark comes in.

"The big challenge is that satellites, to do their job, have to be able to move around in space, full stop," said Ryan McDevitt, cofounder and CEO of Benchmark.

McDevitt, 40, and his growing team of engineers are among a number of companies blazing trails in the realm of space mobility. The field is still in its infancy, so satellite companies can choose among propulsion technologies. Benchmark's involves chemical propellants; others rely on electrical propulsion. Each has advantages and disadvantages, McDevitt said.

"You use chemical when you want to move fast, and you use electric when you want to move efficiently," McDevitt said. Even as the auto industry rapidly shifts toward electric vehicles, "in space, the physics is such that there will always be a need for both," he continued, referring to electrical and other modes of propulsion.

Propulsion controllers - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Propulsion controllers

On June 30, Benchmark's technology was installed on three of the 88 smallsats aboard the SpaceX Transporter-2 rideshare mission, a first for the Burlington startup. Two of those smallsats were U.S. Department of Defense contracts that McDevitt was not at liberty to discuss. The other satellite was a joint project of space-tech company Orbit Fab and satellite maker Astro Digital.

Once a traditional satellite reaches orbit, its path is controlled by the Earth's gravitational pull, which keeps it circling the planet. But the orbit is not a perfect loop; it's a gradual spiral. Eventually, gravity and atmospheric friction cause objects to wind their way back to Earth, burning up on reentry. Micropropulsion systems such as Benchmark's correct a satellite's trajectory, keeping it in orbit for longer periods.

The number of man-made objects circling the Earth is likely to grow enormously in the next decade, from hundreds, currently, to "4,000 satellites to 40,000 satellites to 400,000 satellites" by the early 2030s, McDevitt said during an interview at Hula, the South End coworking campus that houses Benchmark. The longer those satellites can stay in space, the more useful they'll be.

Given the growing commercialization of space real estate, Benchmark is exploring ways to make its clients' satellites even more mobile. In addition to maneuvering around other space traffic, smallsats will need to be serviced and refueled in orbit — a process referred to as on-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing.

"If you have 40,000 satellites, it starts to make sense to have an ecosystem like gas stations and tow trucks," McDevitt said. Getting to and from such hypothetical servicing and refueling stations will also require propulsion. Benchmark's leadership is interested not only in providing that propulsion but also in managing all aspects of a smallsat's journey in space.

"That takes the burden off the customer," McDevitt said. "Let them focus on whatever they're experts at ... and let us be the experts at the thing we're experts at, which is: How do you move around in space?"

McDevitt and Benchmark's cofounder, Matt Shea, launched an early version of their company in 2014, building on the work McDevitt had done as an undergraduate at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and as a graduate student at the University of Vermont.

McDevitt's doctoral research, funded in part through NASA's Vermont Space Grant Consortium, focused on fuel injection for micropropulsion systems. McDevitt licensed back the technology he'd developed in UVM's labs and made it the foundation of Benchmark.

"When it's one of our faculty, what we try to do is give them the licensing terms that allow them to be really successful," UVM vice president of research Kirk Dombrowski said by phone. "Our hope is that these companies get big and rolling and successful, and we really can watch them grow and have a really positive impact on society."

Benchmark's initial funding of $50,000 came through another UVM incubator, Spark-VT, a board of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and other professionals connected to the university that helps researchers commercialize their work. This money was a crucial stamp of approval, McDevitt said, allowing the partners to win additional government grants and investor backing before reincorporating the company in 2017.

Propulsion system - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Propulsion system

Benchmark doesn't do its own manufacturing. While the company's engineers design the propulsion systems, an assortment of U.S. contractors makes their components, which are then inspected, assembled and tested at Benchmark.

"We're testing to make sure [our tech] works the way that we said it was going to, and then we're testing to make sure that it will survive going to space," McDevitt said.

The labs at Benchmark headquarters were fairly quiet during a visit in early October, despite an energy that suggested organized chaos. Tools, components and all manner of equipment were strewn and heaped about. One room held several refrigerator-size devices that help Benchmark make sure everything's working properly.

One of those is a blast chamber equipped with bulletproof glass for testing the chemicals used in the propulsion system. A vacuum chamber helps Benchmark test and measure the thrust its components generate in a vacuum, a huge factor in space mobility. Since the technology needs to perform in the vacuum of space, company workers simulate that environment as much as possible.

Using hot and cold thermal chambers, Benchmark's engineers apply extreme temperatures — 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit) to minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit) — to their propulsion systems to predict how they will behave as they move in and out of the sun's rays.

Spaceflight, the rideshare company, also makes orbital transfer vehicles, or "space tugs," that move satellites from place to place once in orbit. Benchmark's propulsion systems will soon be on those vehicles, too.

Phil Bracken, Spaceflight's vice president of engineering, said Benchmark was his first choice for three reasons. First, as a private company, Benchmark has a more cost-effective output than that of traditional government suppliers. Second, he prefers the kind of propellants Benchmark uses; third, he likes the firm's collaborative attitude.

"They didn't just say, 'Give me your requirements, and I will build you a thing,'" Bracken said. "It was very easy for us to get on the same page."

That collaborative attitude extends to how McDevitt sees Benchmark's role in Vermont's economy. Of the company's 37 employees, 24 work at Benchmark HQ. Some work at an office in Pleasanton, Calif., while others are scattered around, working from home. Most of the 13 new positions the company will create in the next year are likely to be in Vermont, McDevitt said.

"One of the things that really drove me to start the company was wanting to build [space] jobs in Burlington," he said.

Beyond creating jobs, McDevitt has kept his connections to the UVM research community, serving as an industry mentor for students in the Senior Experience in Engineering Design (SEED) program, some of whom intern with Benchmark. Several of Benchmark's earliest employees were students whom McDevitt taught at UVM while he was pursuing his PhD.

"That's a huge part of our story," he said.

Visit the Benchmark Space Systems office and talk with company representatives at the Vermont Tech Jam on Saturday, October 23, at Hula in Burlington from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. To attend the event, register at techjamvt.com.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Out of This World"