Orbion launches rocket factory

Facility opens new test chambers for satellite propulsion technology

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Jason Sommerville, with scissors, celebrates the ribbon-cutting at Orbion’s new rocket factory in Houghton Wednesday. Sommerville and Brad King, right, founded the company in 2016.

HOUGHTON — Orbion Space Technology celebrated its new rocket factory in Houghton with a ribbon-cutting and panel discussion Tuesday afternoon. 

The company was founded in 2016 by Michigan Technological University professors Brad King and Jason Sommerville. The company develops plasma propulsion systems for small satellites.

King, the company’s CEO, said Orbion opened up the new factory as its old facilities were unable to keep up with demand. Orbion designed new testing chambers, two of which were manufactured and shipped from Germany over the past 14 months.

“Next week, these chambers go live,” he said. “So this is a great time to celebrate all the hard work to getting them up and running.”

The two chambers will enable Orbion to test more than 1,000 thrusters per year, a 20-fold improvement over their current capacity. 

King addressed the crowd in front of new vacuum chambers where every thruster will be tested before they go into space. The thrusters can be pumped down to one ten-billionth of an atmosphere.

“Take your fingers and make the smallest space you can find — make it about a half-millimeter by a half-millimeter,” he said. “There’s more air in that volume than in one of these vacuum chambers.”

The chambers can also maintain internal temperatures of 411 degrees Fahrenheit below zero — contrasted with the xenon plasma thrusters being tested inside it, which exhaust gas at 10,000 degrees — twice the temperature of the sun. 

Wednesday also saw a panel discussion including Tech President Rick Koubek and U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents the Silicon Valley area in California’s 17th District. 

Several of Khanna’s constituents are Tech graduates who have invested in Orbion. They told him the company is a “great model of how rural America is leading in next-generation manufacturing,” he said. So he came to see it for himself.

“When you look at having a world class university, like Michigan Tech, having businesses that have really succeeded here, having entrepreneurs and having a very talented student body, those are the recipes for economic success in the 21st century,” he said. “We need to just figure out how do we do this in rural communities across America.”

Khanna discussed his vision for “New Economic Patriotism” of bringing production back to America. This could also revitalize rural areas, he said, making it so children don’t have to leave to seek out other opportunities.

“We need to fund higher education places like Michigan Tech, so that the tuition isn’t as much of a barrier,” he said. “We need to make sure that we are providing financing for next-generation manufacturing companies that are doing innovative work. We need to be making more investment in our workforce so that there are people that companies like Orbion can hire.”

King said the message from local leaders was that people in the area are accustomed to hard work, creating a stable workforce. The area also benefits from having a research university nearby, he said. 

“High tech companies need that kind of interaction, dealing with diverse ideas from the faculty, having the facilities available for us to use,” he said. “We couldn’t have done this without having Michigan Tech.”

As a spinoff of Michigan Tech, Orbion maintains close ties with the university, King said. It plans to continue growing in Houghton, which King called “a great place to live and work.”

“We have 50 employees right now, and we’re going to keep growing year upon year,” he said. “So these are really high-paying jobs and a great workforce. We’re bringing people to the area and we think it makes a great community.”


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