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From Creating Software To Building Plasma Powered Thrusters With Miles Space

Wes Faler
  • Founder
    Wes Faler
  • Propulsion and space communications
  • Focus
  • 🌍
  • Employees
  • 1-10
  • Country
  • Founded
  • 2015

Tell us your background and about Miles Space

I graduated a Manufacturing Systems Engineer – a blend of mechanical, electrical, and industrial engineering with simulations, coding, and management skills. I also co-built a software company after college working 500+ projects which spanned from children’s games to high-speed real-time control systems

Finally, the day came where I chose to focus on science. I took 20+ years of software and engineering knowledge to pursue my passion for space, writing a fast plasma simulator and an AI to explore new propulsion designs. Two years later an engine design emerged.

During this time, NASA announced the CubeQuest Challenge. Friends from the Tampa Hackerspace joined me in meeting that challenge. We created communications technology. We put forward our vision of a deep space cubesat with new propulsion to favorable reviews by NASA!

After the CubeQuest Challenge, Miles Space was founded. Our long term vision is filled with spacecraft exploring the solar system, enabled by our thrusters and communications technology. Right now, we’re working a short term vision closer to home with propulsion and communications for Earth-orbiting satellites.

How did the idea for Miles Space come about and what was it like getting started?

Perhaps frustration is the mother of invention. When brainstorming on plasma propulsion, every new idea turned out to be an old idea. I started reading the cited books on existing inventions and found they all traced back to a single book: Physics of Electric Propulsion by Robert Jahn. This book begins with all of the differential equations governing plasma behavior.

Differential equations are those tricky equations where everything depends on everything, especially initial conditions. The author points out that the only way to simplify the equations is to accelerate ions only, never separately accelerate ions and electrons. This turns the equations into algebra, readily solvable with 1960’s-era computers. There isn’t really a mandate to only accelerate ions, just a math trick that is enabled by accepting that limitation.

Armed with knowledge it could work, I began learning the skills to build and test the thruster, its electronics, and the supporting lab equipment.

So, I discarded the limitation and put 20+ years of software engineering into writing a plasma simulation on a GPU, then coupled it with AI to explore design options. What emerged was a whole new energy cycle – and thrust! Armed with knowledge it could work, I began learning the skills to build and test the thruster, its electronics, and the supporting lab equipment.

That’s where Tampa Hackerspace came in. Friends, now business partners, joined into the project. Prototypes were built using 3D printers and a laser cutter. Tests were done in small vacuum chambers with embedded computers and sensors, leveraging the IoT hardware trends. Those tests on iodine and plastic showed thrust and secured Angel investment for real tests at Georgia Tech. But that’s a longer story involving covered wagons.

How did you fund the company initially?

Thruster money is our own money. Angel investors provided funding directly to Georgia Tech and NASA for use of their facilities. Spending our own money is stressful, watching the bank account drain and the dreams build. However, it built the skills and prototypes needed to show how compact and resilient the concept can be.

Those demonstrations and a physical prototype got the attention of an Angel interested in a new line of thrusters for their satellite integration business. That allowed us to validate the thruster’s operating principle.

Why is the problem you are solving important and how does it help human space exploration?

To really explore the solar system, to really engage the resources of the solar system, we need propulsion that is energy efficient, has high thrust, has great fuel economy, and will operate on the wide variety of propellants that will be found and made in situ. It isn’t practical to carry around all the fuel needed to explore, so we need a future of refueling in space, allowing opportunistic exploration, and enabling an economy to happen.

Electric propulsion scales in fuel economy and thrust. Fuel economy of electric propulsion is easily 5-10x that of chemical engines. Thrust falls far behind though. Increasing thrust requires massive increases in power, increases in efficiency, or an entirely new approach to converting energy to thrust. Increasing power means larger spacecraft, especially when operating far from the sun, which means lower acceleration and a larger engine to get the same effect.

It isn’t practical to carry around all the fuel needed to explore, so we need a future of refueling in space, allowing opportunistic exploration, and enabling an economy to happen.

Of course, chemical thrusters are greatly restricted on what fuel they can use, mandating specific chemical bonds and reaction rates. Surprisingly, electric thrusters are designed for specific propellants too, being highly optimized rather than generalized.

We bring an electric propulsion system that is energy efficient, has great fuel economy, runs using dirty water widely expected to be made during asteroid mining, and is very compact. Compactness allows our solution to scale through redundancy – a critical factor for human exploration. Energy efficiency means it can operate far from the sun without huge overhead of solar panels or power plants. The combination of features is unique and a strong competitive advantage for us all.

What are some achievements you're proud of?

It works! Honestly, that’s a huge achievement. We’ve shown multiple times that the thruster’s fundamental, and new, operating principles are actually occurring, generating thrust, and using very little power. We’ve tested in two nationally recognized labs. The thruster design has been approved by NASA as a payload on the SLS Artemis-1 mission – a man rated safety certification! Our in-house, Maker-made, test facilities are generating thrust values consistent with far more sophisticated labs, enabling us to increase our pace.

What have been some of your biggest challenges? How did you overcome them?

A technical roadblock is the need for physical iteration because plasma and gas flow simulations can only be so accurate. We’ve learned to prototype quickly using desktop CNC, 3D printing, and laser cutting. However, access to sophisticated test facilities for direct thrust measurement remains expensive and infrequent.

We’re focused on using proxy measurements at our in-house lab. A proxy measurement improves when thrust improves. A good example is the voltage across a Hall Effect sensor in the plasma. As the plasma velocity goes up, so does the voltage, and the thrust. It’s not a clean one to one relationship, yet it allows us to know if a new design is an improvement.

There’s always a marketing challenge. The operating principle is new which clouds the marketing efforts. We’ve been told the one-true-way to sell is to start with a formal academic proof of the equations. Considering we started by breaking the rules that lead to equation-based proofs, that’s not so much of an option. The rest of the market cares about data or actual flight heritage. We’re focused on flying the thruster aboard the Team Miles mission, a 6U cubesat headed for deep space. That will establish flight heritage, opening markets to data-driven mission planners and possibly giving data to guide academic study.

What are exciting milestones coming up for Miles Space?

We’re finishing a 6U satellite for the NASA CubeQuest Challenge. That’s building, testing, and delivering our thruster ready for flight to deep space. Building will be done in the next few months and the satellite will fly in the next 1-2 years.

In the coming months, the thruster will go through a new round of testing, certifying its performance with water.

Look for a new website coming to help spacecraft designers understand all the missions enabled with our technology!

What advice do you have for aspiring space entrepreneurs?

Share a big vision. Take small, loud steps towards it. Pivot with learning and opportunities.

Your vision of the future, and your company’s role in it, is a huge asset.  Refine it endlessly. Defend it tirelessly. Share it passionately.

Every step you take will be on the path between now and that vision. But, not everyone can hold onto your vision, let alone see the path you’re sprinting upon. Make a plan of many small, overlapping steps. When you make progress, be loud about it and document it. Those steps are the evidence that you’ve got momentum toward the goal.

Your vision of the future, and your company’s role in it, is a huge asset.  Refine it endlessly. Defend it tirelessly. Share it passionately.

When you learn better, you’ll do better. Pivot as you learn. Adjust your plans over and over. Get used to that adjustment, it’s actually progress.

How can the public support you with your mission?

How can the public help? Need a great thruster for your cubesat? Seriously, we’re very interested in partnering with cubesat missions to get on an earlier flight. We’re also pondering how a near-space balloon flight can be useful and welcome input from the many enthusiasts in that field – teach us, let’s figure it out. Honestly, there’s probably a million ways a creative reader can help, please show me.

Lastly, where can people find out more about Miles Space and follow along?

You can follow along with our journey at https://miles-space.com as well as on Twitter at https://twitter.com/milesspace. We’re looking forward to posting our status reports as our satellite makes its way into the history books when we launch on the Artemis mission.

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  • Wes Faler
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