Picture credits: Argo Space Corp.
A new startup founded by a trio of SpaceX veterans – who happen to be brothers – aims to build a transportation network in space, using reusable spacecraft powered by water harvested from the moon.
Argo Space Corporation, founded by Robert Carlisle, Ryan Carlisle and Kirby Carlisle, is betting the lunar thruster will detach space activities from Earth – and unlock a thriving economy beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).
Their plan addresses several key space economics limitations: First, all existing orbital transport vehicles are geared towards LEO, not more demanding orbits like geosynchronous (GEO) or cislunar. Second, none of these vehicles are reusable. Third, there is no method to refuel even a theoretically reusable vehicle. And finally, such a method would probably depend on earth resources for the propellant.
Argo, based in Hermosa Beach, aims to address these limitations. The company’s first spacecraft is called the Argonaut, named after the famous sea heroes of Greek mythology. The Argonaut is designed to be reusable and rechargeable, and with the ability to perform power-intensive transfers to GEO and beyond. But the whole operation would depend on lunar water, which the company plans to harvest and store in space to replenish.
Water as the fuel of choice for spacecraft is not a new concept. In 2021, NASA launched a CubeSat demonstrator carrying a pint of water to test a new method of water-based propulsion. Although Argo won’t divulge too many details about its system, the company did specify that it will use a water plasma thruster.
“We see this a lot like the California gold rush, where we’re going to market this resource on the moon – water – and it’s going to allow many other companies to expand their businesses, to look for other new resources and bring new capabilities into space that would otherwise not be possible or at all or economical without a service like ours,” explained COO Kirby Carlisle.
An architecture based on water
The company’s plan is ambitious, but it has caught the attention of investors. Argo recently closed a $2 million funding round led by Type One Ventures, with participation from Boost VC, Stellar Ventures and Earthrise Ventures, to further develop its technology.
Investors have no doubt been impressed with the founders’ background: the three brothers worked at SpaceX, with CTO Ryan Carlisle most recently serving as director of launch engineering, where he led large engineering on projects such as Falcon and Starship. He also worked on an in-space refueling system project, under a contract NASA awarded to SpaceX in 2020.
Argo’s emphasis on water as a propellant stems in part from Ryan’s experience with cryogenic propellants, such as liquid oxygen, methane and hydrogen, he said in an interview. .
“Cryogens are no fun to use,” he said. One reason is that they must be stored at extremely low temperatures to remain in a liquid state – but these extreme temperatures can affect the material properties of items such as actuators, seals and other critical engine components. a propulsion system.
Kirby, who worked on the post-launch refurbishment of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles at SpaceX and is now COO of Argo, also encountered the difficulty of working with cryogenic fuels.
“While working in launch vehicle refurbishment, I have repeatedly found that it is very difficult to reuse components easily, especially in a rapid manner,” he said. “Waterproofing, as Ryan mentioned, is a huge issue.”
Water, on the other hand, is “coincidentally a good way to work,” Ryan said. It doesn’t have the same corrosive effects on materials, for one thing. One of its main advantages, especially for Argo plans, is that it can be stored for long periods of time. This makes it a useful propellant for supply depots in space and for long duration missions.
However, Argo still has a long way to go before his vision can be fully realized. Although the company claims to have understood its process for extracting lunar water, it has yet to install equipment on the moon and prove its plan. Argo CEO Robert Carlisle said the company wants to be on the moon, processing regolith and turning it into water, by the late 2020s. Recent missions including the Stratospheric Observatory for astronomy NASA’s infrared and China’s Chang’e-5, have discovered the existence of water even on the sunlit parts of the moon, which will no doubt make Argo’s initial plans much more technically simple.
“We’re talking to every lander and rover company you could think of to do an early demo,” Robert said.
Until then, the company plans to generate revenue from space transportation services, with Argonauts using Earth’s water as propellant. The spacecraft could also be used for satellite inspections or even orbital debris removal, thanks to its ability to encounter other objects in space.
The next big step for the company will be an initial demonstration mission scheduled for late 2024, to prove the spacecraft’s propulsion technology and capture mechanism. Robert, who was SpaceX’s commercial launch sales manager and had also worked as a national security satellite sales manager, said Argo’s carrier network could solve the problem of small satellites having access to orbits at higher high energy beyond LEO.
“People would come to me at SpaceX and try to find these rideshare side launches,” he said. “It’s hard, it’s expensive. It’s hard to build a business around that. So we combined Ryan’s lunar resource idea with this idea of more abundant and accessible transport – not just in low Earth orbit, going all the way to geostationary orbit or lunar orbits.
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