Tech Blog: Zenno Astronautics

Zenno Astronautics is the brainchild of three students who were involved with the Auckland Program for Space Systems (APSS), and has grown into a fully-fledged space flight systems company. The founding students are a true testament to the value of perseverance and hard work. Despite not winning any prizes during their time in the APSS, they persisted and went on to win Velocity’s 100K challenge in 2018.

Currently, Zenno is developing space exploration software as well as propulsion systems for small satellites – CUBESATS – which would extend their time in orbit and allow them to work cohesively in formation. The co-founder and managing director, Max Arshavsky, aims to not only eliminate space debris, but also to develop the commercial viability of the space market overall.

While technology has allowed us to shrink the size of satellites to the size of a loaf of bread, and launch satellites within a few years, the internal systems have not been so easy to scale down. The problem is that in a lower orbit – within 2000 kilometres of the surface – satellites experience drag, which eventually causes them to fall out of orbit. As such, the traditional method of storing propellant within the satellite to correct orbital course is no longer possible. To counter this problem, Zenno are developing hardware using physics principles which have been idle since 60s.

Thus Zenno’s solution is for the satellite to correct its course using the magnetic fields in their surrounding environment. The interactions between the magnetic fields of planet earth and a generated field from the satellite, combined with engineering capability only possible in the last couple of years, means Zenno has all the pieces needed to engineer the solution. After another 2-3 years, Zenno aims to release their technology in stages – with the first stage being electromagnetic formation flight. The possibilities of this technology are not only that the CUBESATs can correct their course, but also that they can position themselves in relation to each other, assemble themselves into a larger structure, launched on multiple rockets, create dynamic structures – the possibilities are endless.

While the team are the embodiment of a Silicon Valley start-up, they have decided to stay in New Zealand. Arshavsky and Zenno’s two other co-founders, William Haringa and Sebastian Wieczorek, are Kiwis but come from international backgrounds, including from Poland and the Netherlands. They believe that New Zealand has an ideal entrepreneurial environment for startups; instead of maintaining existing systems, innovators can come forward to try ideas that are risky, and make mistakes during the learning process without failing.

To the Zenno team, their startup philosophy is about trust. While building a startup is stressful, by ensuring that the team is open with one another and respects each other, success is on the horizon.