By SGN | 11 Apr 2022
On 13 January 2022, Singapore startup Aliena made headlines when its plasma engine – fitted onto a nanosatellite built by another Singapore startup, NuSpace – was launched aboard a SpaceX rideshare rocket from Cape Canaveral.
For the young company, developing and deploying the tiny engine within two years was a huge achievement, since it was an industry first for such a small satellite to be powered by a Hall thruster. While a typical Hall thruster consumes kilowatts of power, Aliena’s invention drastically reduced consumption to under 10W, making it suitable for small satellites with limited surface area for solar panels.
“This was a very important milestone for us,” George says, “and it was a great learning experience, building this kind of miniaturised propulsion system and qualifying it for spaceflight.”
Although space exploration in Singapore is nothing new – Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Satellite Research Centre (SaRC) opened in 2001, and EDB’s Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTIn) was set up in 2013 – recent developments have signalled greater interest in unlocking the sector’s potential.
In February, the government announced a S$150 million investment in space innovation. A month later, during a diplomatic visit to the US, Singapore signed the Artemis Accords, becoming the first Southeast Asian country to join the space pact.
George says these events bode well for the future of Singapore spacetech firms, including newcomers like Aliena.
Scaling down to scale up
Aliena’s breakthrough technology rides the trend of satellites getting smaller, particularly as more private companies enter the scene looking to launch quickly with low investment risks.
Their miniaturised plasma engine – which scales down form factor as well as fuel and power consumption – is able to maintain the altitude of small satellites in very low earth orbits (VLEO) by countering the friction of the atmosphere.
Besides supplying the propulsion system to other space firms and missions, Aliena has even bigger plans for its application. In the long term, the team plans to deploy a constellation of VLEO satellites to collect very high-resolution images of the tropical region (roughly within 30° north and south of the equator) and provide this reliable data at an accessible cost to commercial and governmental users.
Currently, high-quality imagery is achieved via bulky and expensive satellites, but this is prohibitive for the numerous emerging economies of South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Central America and South America.
According to George, there is great demand for such images among data distributors or data analytics firms, as well as direct customers that use the data to monitor infrastructure or supply chains – in sectors such as energy, aviation, agriculture, emergency response and urban development.
Tackling environmental challenges
The client segment Aliena is most keen to acquire, however, is governmental bodies. They look forward to partnering nations concerned about environmental protection, aiding them to introduce data-informed regulations around the use of natural resources.
Such global impact, George says, would be in line with the UN’s call for the space industry to support sustainable development, specifically through achieving 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).
“The tropical region is rich in natural resources and fragile ecosystems,” he notes, “and so the question is: How can developing nations grow sustainably? I believe the solution lies in affordable access to powerful satellite data that can monitor effects on the environment and tackle challenges such as water and food security and climate change.”
Aliena intends to offer this earth observation data via a subscription model or a satellite-as-a-service model whereby customers can lease their infrastructure. Either way, no large investment outlay is required.
A long way from home
George’s journey to becoming a space scientist began in the tiny village of Humulești (population less than 4,000) in northeastern Romania. He fell in love with the infinite wonder of space from a young age, thanks to his father’s love of astronomy, as well as clear skies free of light pollution and filled with “all the stars you can imagine”.
He will never forget witnessing in 1997, at the age of five, the passage of the Hale–Bopp comet – an incredible astronomical event that left him completely awestruck.
In high school, George began to dive deeper into the subject and went on to compete in the national Olympiad on astronomy and astrophysics. Though he studied aerospace engineering at university, his final year brought him to Italy as a research intern in space electric propulsion, which has remained his field of specialisation ever since.
After a double Master’s in Sweden and Germany and work stints in France and Japan, George wanted to pursue his PhD but couldn’t find a suitable opportunity in Europe. This led him to join the Space Propulsion Centre at NTU in Singapore, or what he saw as a new team with a well-financed lab housed in a reputable university.
Not long after starting his PhD, George was approached by Mark – a labmate who had completed his dissertation in plasma physics – with the idea to start Aliena and translate their expertise into a commercial venture. With support from NTU, the duo launched the company in 2018.
Three and a half years on, George is thrilled with the progress that the team has made. Having completed his PhD at the end of last year, he is now devoting all of his energies to Aliena and he is excited to see the endeavour grow.
Exploring the possibilities of space
Following an oversubscribed seed funding of S$1.5 million in 2019, Aliena is now aiming to raise US$10 million Series A to fund their research, marketing and upcoming space missions.
In May 2023, they plan to conduct an in-orbit demonstration of their plasma engine for VLEO satellites. Subsequently, in 2024, they will launch their first satellite with this engine onboard and prove the effective delivery of data to their ground infrastructure.
George also sees exciting days ahead for spacetech in Singapore. “The space economy is a fast-moving economy,” he observes, “and Singapore has always excelled at moving quickly, bringing together talent from around the world, coming up with innovative ideas, and productising them within a short timeframe.”
He says space is a domain that modern, future-oriented societies can no longer ignore. Given that Singapore has been a forerunner of smart city transformation, it’s only natural that it is looking towards space for powerful data to feed its AI and machine learning infrastructure.
“In the coming years, we are going to see more and more startups springing up with new solutions for the space industry,” George predicts. “The government’s show of support will encourage a more rapid translation of technologies from research labs into commercial businesses, and we are very happy to be among this wave of space innovators here in Singapore.”
George is the co-founder and chief technology officer of Aliena, a Singapore startup that builds miniaturised plasma engines for VLEO satellites to provide high-quality data at an accessible cost.
Connect with him here.