Speaker Interview: Ane Aanesland, CEO, ThrustMe
Ane Aanesland, co-founder and CEO of ThrustMe, is a recognised expert in plasma physics and electric propulsion. She holds a PhD in physics from the northernmost university in the world, The Arctic University of Norway, and since 2006 she worked at the Ecole Polytechnique in France where she grew up a research team on innovative electric propulsion. She was nominated director of research at the CNRS in 2017. In 2017, she co-founded the startup ThrustMe, enabling a sustainable space industry by developing and commercializing space propulsion systems for next generation satellites. ThrustMe has raised close to 5 M€ in private capital and subventions, employs ~20 people, and their first commercial products enter the market in 2019.
Hi Ane, could you please tell us a little bit more about your position as CEO of ThrustMe?
Yes sure – although my tasks are extremely varied, the most important part of my role as the CEO of a young company is to define our overall strategy and make sure that we, as a company, move, and are able to move, in that direction together. For that, I am responsible for giving the information and providing the resources (budget, equipment, humans…) that everyone needs to execute and do their work well.
You will participate in the How to Select the Right Propulsion Systems to Enhance Sustainable Constellations panel on the Smallsats Conference on Wednesday 20 November. Propulsion systems remain a big topic for small satellites – can you tell us what type of propulsion systems ThrustMe specialises?
Yes, propulsion is an important topic and it is/will become crucial for the smallsat industry. Firstly, because propulsion will allow the industry to remain environmentally sustainable with de-orbiting and collision avoidance manoeuvres for smallsats. Secondly, propulsion is essential for the many constellation projects that require large orbital manoeuvrability, such as significant orbital changes, phasing, drag compensation, and so on. At ThrustMe we have a variety of fully integrated space propulsion systems to meet the various needs in the industry. Our smallest and simplest one is a self-pressurised cold gas thruster developed for CubeSats – it is ideal for 3U and 6Us and can be stacked for bigger platforms. We also have an electric propulsion system for small and medium-size satellites. This one provides significant delta-V for constellations of satellites or for highly sophisticated single satellite missions. We also have larger electric propulsion systems in our R&D pipeline.
What are the key challenges that propulsion system manufacturers and end users face?
In the past, the propulsion system on large satellite platforms were split into different sub-systems – thrusters, power processing units and fluidics components – and each part was optimised and sold individually. Today, with miniaturised systems it is the optimisation on system level that counts, and we need to add thermal management and operations to the whole propulsion unit. This is technically challenging, but what I think will be the most challenging part in the long run is to meet the price and lead-time targets of our end user without compromising on the reliability and quality of the system.
The interest and technological development in autonomous systems for on-orbit operations and constellation management are gaining momentum across the industry. What does this technology mean to you and why is it such a game changer when it comes to propulsion?
Isn’t that fascinating. We are used to hearing about autonomous / self-driven cars, but maybe it is the satellite constellations that will adapt this technology first. The huge complexity of operating a constellation will require some sort of autonomy on the individual satellite level. For us, the first step is to deliver intelligent propulsion systems, the next one will be to support in the optimisation and automation of the propulsive operations.
In terms of industry news, what development, announcement or otherwise has stood out most to you in the past year and why?
The Starlink launch and the announcement of Amazon’s Kuiper constellation. For me, they are the symbol of the rapid transformation the space industry is going through. I find it exciting.
If you could have one historical figure over to dinner, who would it be and why?
Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. During my whole life Nansen has been my idol. When I was a child, it was due to his achievements in exploring the Arctic, today it is more for his thoughts, wisdom and guts.
We’re looking forward to seeing you at the Smallsats Conference at Space Tech Expo Europe. Can you tell us what you’re most looking forward to at the show?
Thank you. I believe Space Tech Expo will be a great event where we will meet the whole space community – finally, an event where traditional and new actors will meet up and join forces.
Join Ane on Wednesday 20 November at the 'How to Select the Right Propulsion Systems to Enhance Sustainable Constellations' panel and ThrustMe will be exhibiting at stand 5038 at Space Tech Expo Europe 2019.