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Neutron Star Systems awarded contract by European Space Agency to deliver superconducting components for spacecraft

(19 February 2021 - Neutron Star Systems) Neutron Star Systems (NSS) has announced the signature of its first contract with the European Space Agency to deliver superconducting components for spacecraft.

Under the agreement, NSS will deliver a High-Temperature Superconductor Harness which will support the operation of advanced scientific instrumentation for astrophysics missions. NSS has partnered with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), in Germany, and the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in Grenoble, France, to deliver this project.

Instruments for astrophysics typically operate at extremely low temperatures close to absolute zero, in order to be able to detect faint signals from distant galaxies. Keeping them cool requires an intricate chain of cryocoolers, and every source of heat increases the difficulty to maintain the low temperatures. A major source of heat is the conventional metallic cabling system used to supply electricity to these coolers. Replacing it with High-Temperature Superconductors will significantly reduce this heat load, improving the efficiency of the system.

Marcus Collier-Wright, CTO of Neutron Star Systems, said: “Becoming an official ESA supplier is a deserved credit for the work of our brilliant team over the last years, and a further recognition of the vital importance superconductors have to play in space technology. I hope this will be the starting point for ESA to explore the full potential of superconductors for use in other systems such as electric propulsion and power management. Following on from the EU’s investment in superconducting space technology under the MEESST project, this is another indication that Europe is starting to move in the right direction to secure leadership on a key technology for future space missions, especially in the face of serious competition from abroad.”

Indeed, it is not only in Europe where the potential of superconductors for space has been realised. Last year, the government of New Zealand announced a €6.5 million funding program to develop a superconductor-based Applied-Field Magnetoplasmadynamic (AF-MPD) Thruster, with a flight demonstration planned in 2025. In December, The Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute, in partnership with superconductor producer SuperOx, published details of the testing of a superconductor-based AF-MPD prototype. This was followed by the news that Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is allocating €50 million to the development of a nuclear-powered space tug capable of transporting up to 10 tons cargo from LEO to the Moon. Superconductor-based spacecraft systems are ideal for this type of missions. Meanwhile, work continues at Beihang University in China to produce their own prototype. This significant traction is a signal, that it is only a matter of time until superconductors are widely adopted in spacecraft systems.

David Hindley, Neutron Star Systems’ engineering advisor, has managed several ESA projects in the past, and was heavily involved in the writing of the proposal and the securing of the contract. He said: “Securing an ESA contract is an exceptional achievement for any company, especially a start-up such as NSS. I am glad to say that ESA has placed their confidence in NSS’ excellent and hard-working team, and having passed perhaps the most challenging stages of proposal bidding and contract negotiation, we are incredibly excited to get to work on this project. We are privileged to count on the support of prestigious institutions such as KIT and CEA, and their significant expertise on superconductor and cryocooling technology will help ensure we deliver an excellent project to ESA.

The 18-month project, under a programme of and funded by the European Space Agency, was kicked-off on the 1st February and is scheduled to run until mid-August 2021.