Space affects a large portion of our lives, and for most of us, we are oblivious to it. While outer space used to be the sole domain of governments and defence contractors, a range of private companies and startups are doing the seemingly impossible by building and launching satellites.

Last July, SpaceX was the first private company to launch astronauts to the International Space Station and return them safely to Earth. Jonathan Lun, CEO and Co-founder of Hypernova, a Stellenbosch University LaunchLab startup, talks to us about the changing face of the space industry worldwide.

Jonathan previously worked for CubeSpace, a Stellenbosch University LaunchLab alumni, as Operations Manager. He has worked for several years in the space industry, learnt firsthand how to build and run a small space company and to get to know and understand customers.

Historically, satellites have weighed thousands of kilograms and cost billions of dollars to build and launch. However, in recent years, CubeSats have shrunk to the size of a loaf of bread, weighing only a couple of kgs. As a result, many satellite components are shrinking. This includes hi-resolution cameras (like the ones built by a local company, Simera), sensors and actuators (like the ones built by a local company, NewSpace Systems) and attitude control systems (by CubeSpace).

However, propulsion systems (also known as “thrusters”), which allow satellites to manoeuvre around once they are in space orbit, have yet to be widely adopted. Existing commercial solutions are generally very expensive, complex devices that require toxic, pressurised, and/or exotic fuels to operate. All this makes it a headache for satellite builders to install and use propulsion on their system. Enter Hypernova Space Technologies, a company who is developing a simpler and more affordable propulsion product that diminishes many of these risks and uses safe and sustainable fuel sources.

The number of small satellites is growing exponentially. SpaceX, for example, launches sixty satellites into Low Earth Orbit almost every fortnight. According to Jonathan, all these satellites need propulsion to maintain their orbits and avoid colliding with other crafts resulting in space junk. Calls across industry and government are being made to keep a clean and sustainable space environment. All these technological, political and market forces are converging to a situation where satellite propulsion is going to become high in demand.

Fits in the palm of your hand

What makes Hypernova different from other satellite propulsion companies is that their product uses nothing but ordinary solid metal as rocket fuel. Instead of very expensive, rare and harmful fuels, Hypernovas’ technology makes use of fuel sources that are both plentiful and low cost. Their thruster uses electrical power to create small electric arc pulses to vaporise and convert metal into tiny plasma jets. These jets produce the thrust force to move a satellite in space. Hypernova’s first product will be able to run on only a few Watts of power and can easily fit in the palm of your hand.

The beauty of the technology is that metal fuel has many use cases and there is no limit to the size of the application. “We envision a future where Hypernova’s propulsion systems could be used on large GPS satellites or space stations, eat metal space junk, and turn asteroids and other celestial bodies into fuel. Our moon-shot vision is to ultimately make industrial-scale asteroid mining possible,” says Jonathan.

Satellites are already pretty complex and delicate machines even without propulsion on-board. Hypernova’s primary goal right now is to make a product that is as easy and straightforward as possible for satellite builders to install and use. Their technology is inherently safer because their fuel source does not need special equipment to be stored or handled both on the ground and in space. This means that there is no risk of explosions, leaks or toxic exposure.

Stellenbosch University LaunchLab coaching

Jonathan really got to know about the Stellenbosch University Launchlab while working for CubeSpace. The incubator has helped him grow his company with the business coaching and mentorship offered by people like Brandon Paschal, Director of Innovation who has been a sounding board for guidance and providing alternative perspectives. Furthermore, the Build program has been very helpful in identifying how (and whether) the business meets customer’s needs. “It’s still early days, but I look forward to deepening the relationship as Hypernova grows”, says Jonathan.

The best advice Jonathan has ever been given is to learn fast. Meaning to prioritise and optimise workflow toward testing fundamental assumptions as quickly as possible. He has made this part of his business ethos. Building only what has needed (MVP) to validate specific ideas about the market and technology, helps Jonathan from investing too much time, money or energy into a chosen path.

What next for this very exciting and world-shaping start-up? Hypernova continues to attract private investment since completing their first Angel round a few months ago. Together with a DTI grant, they are busy establishing their facilities and building product prototypes. Watch this space!

To find out more about Hypernova, please email jon@hypernovaspace.com.

For more information on the Stellenbosch University LaunchLab, please email info@launchlab.co.za or visit our website here.

About Stellenbosch University LaunchLab

Africa’s top university-backed incubator the last four years running according to UBI Global, Stellenbosch University LaunchLab exists to transform seemingly impossible ideas into world-shaping companies. Founded in 2015, we have incubated 200+ companies across both technology transfer as well as the entrepreneurial ecosystem at large. A focus on climate, biomedical & agri-tech allows us to utilise entrepreneurship to tackle the challenges that matter most to Africa & the Global South. For more information or to become part of the SU LaunchLab Community, visit www.launchlab.co.za.