Agile Space Industries fires up Animas test stand to meet soaring demand

Despite the incredible growth of the space industry over the past decade, there are still few places in the United States dedicated to testing rocket engines and spacecraft. This isn’t a problem for big companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, which can afford to build their own; but almost everyone faces long wait times and high costs.

Agile space industries seeks to change that. Founder Daudi Barnes launched the company in 2019 to augment the work of his previous company, Advanced Mobile Propulsion Test. AMPT provided hypergolic engine testing, but as Agile the company expanded into propulsion systems, thrusters, rocket engines and ground support equipment.

The Colorado-based startup already operates a test stand, called Sunshine, which AMPT set up in 2010. Last week, it opened a second stand, called Animas – the only commercial facility capable of vacuum testing hypergolic engines of more than 300 pounds and up to 6,000 pounds of thrust, according to the company.

“The market is growing really, really fast at the moment,” explained Animas project manager Graham Dudley. “The barrier to entry for rocket engines has been lowered, so there are a lot of people in this game. But for testing? It’s really very difficult to do.

Animas is designed for modularity, so it can be used for test campaigns ranging from early prototype testing to qualification and acceptance testing. The rack is built on skids, in parts that can be moved or replaced, so Agile can handle any type of testing it (or a customer) needs.

Engine testing provides the company with an additional revenue stream, offering services to other space companies while enabling faster internal engine development.

Image credit: Agile Space Industries

“Being able to easily access testing earlier in your programs is really helpful,” said Mesa Hollinbeck, lead test engineer at Agile. “We used several programs, back when we were AMPT, that went very far in their design before hot-starting the engine, and it didn’t work. So they had over four years of design and development that they had to restart on, and it’s really very expensive and hard to predict for your timeline. Having access to testing at an early stage is therefore certainly an issue for much of the industry.

Vacuum testing is particularly important for space propulsion systems because these tests are specifically designed to simulate the space environment. But it requires a lot of resources, Hollinbeck said: “For a lot of small companies in NewSpace, it’s just very expensive to install this infrastructure and they don’t want to make that investment. They want to spend their money elsewhere. It’s pretty easy to make a cool, hot video of an engine in the desert with your really cheap dyno, but getting real data that lets you fly your rig – that’s a level of higher sophistication.

Owning the testbed means that Agile engineers have access to lots of data about their systems. This is a competitive advantage in the space propulsion market, which has become increasingly crowded as the cost of launching spacecraft into orbit has fallen. Many engines fire up for the first time in orbit, but that could change as larger, more expensive missions head to the Moon and deep space.

Dudley said some of the external requests for Agile testing received indicated “concern on the part of several organizations that there is not enough testing of the engines used in some of the missions they support, and that this puts these missions in the background.” risk.”

“We hear this directly, the reason they want to contact us is because they are concerned that if they don’t find tests, it will increase the risk profile for their missions, and that is unacceptable for them going forward . »


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