At 26, Yana Harlan leads the development of a space engine


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At 26, Yana Harlan leads the development of a space engine

In 2017, Russian scientists from the Avant Space team began developing a unique helicon grid engine for space satellites. With him, they could maintain an orbit and perform interorbital transitions.

“At first glance, this simple device controls truly complex plasma processes and allows you to accelerate the working fluid of the engine to speeds of tens of kilometers per second. The basic scheme is not new – we just tried to make the plasma discharge itself as efficient as possible by exciting helicon waves, ”says Yana Harlan, co-founder and CEO of the Avant Space project.

In 2019, Avant Space received a grant of 60 million rubles from Skolkovo for a period of two years to create a prototype propulsion system. Yana Harlan is a graduate of Baumanka and a graduate student of Skoltech. She has been working in the industry since 19 years. Before creating her project, Yana managed to work as an engineer in Russian Space Systems and at the Central Institute of Aviation Motors named after Baranova. In 2019, Forbes included her in the list of applicants for participation in the ranking of the most promising Russians under the age of 30.

We talked with Harlan about her project, about the state of the Russian space industry and about the problems that development is facing.

– I think that many people feel the global cosmic changes. This is unbelievable, but the cost of launching 1 kg of cargo into a low orbit decreased three times in 2017 (glory to Ilon Mask). We are on the verge of a new era of astronautics, an era of multi-satellite constellations and the ubiquitous Internet. In fact, the creation of a group of the global coverage of the Earth with broadband Internet is not only billions of dollars, but also an innumerable amount of new ideas, projects, and, so to say, technological challenges. My team is also trying to keep up with the latest trends and create a vital subsystem for satellites in groups. Now in the world there are a lot of startups that pursue the same goal, we live in the conditions of fierce competition.

– What is the uniqueness of the project that will give the use of such engines?

– Ultra-precise control of the satellite, transitions to other orbits, the possibility of rebuilding the constellation, and all this with the coolest specific impulse in a very miniature form. For example, our entire engine control system is a 10 * 10 * 10 cm cube, and in the old days such a system for an ion engine weighed almost like me.

Photo: www.avantspace.com

– Initially, it was said that the engines will begin to be used in 2020. How's the work going?

– At the dawn of the project, we hoped for a Russian investor and the interest of Roscosmos. I thought that we would develop an engine, and then things were small, but it wasn’t there. The modern customer – the creator of the satellite – requires the delivery of a turnkey easily integrated solution. Therefore, today we are also developing all the service subsystems of the engine, and at the same time we are completing our own apparatus for a technological mission. I must admit that this year we are unlikely to start, although a flight prototype of the propulsion system (with subsystems) will already be developed. I hope we find ways to start within 2021 and thus lay the way to the world market with bay leaves (if successful, of course).

Photo: www.avantspace.com

about the project

The project was born within the walls of the plasma physics laboratory of Moscow State University and turned into a real Russian space startup based on the Skolkovo Foundation. Now the Avant Space team has only 8 people, it conducts tests in the laboratories of MSTU. Bauman and works closely with Bauman specialists.

The team also collaborates with institutes of aerospace research: the Central Scientific Research Institute of Special Engineering, the Center named after Keldysh, and also works together with Skoltech. In addition, 3 specialists of the company are Skoltech graduate students.

The company plans to create an electric rocket engine of low power consumption (up to 300 W) for small spacecraft (MCA). Its main advantages are high specific impulse (up to 4000 s), energy efficiency and high resource. Scientists justify the relevance of the development of a sharp increase in the number of launched commercial satellites, which, according to Euroconsult, will grow tens of times over the next 10 years. The propulsion system on board, they said, is necessary for the satellite to function as part of a multi-satellite constellation.

– How easy is it to develop something in Russia?

– Everywhere you stick – everywhere has its own difficulties. They start with technological issues. For the manufacture of engines, complex manufacturing technologies are needed: high-precision ceramic production, titanium processing, and it is often difficult for us to find a supplier who can do such a job. This takes time and money, since no one has experience in manufacturing such products. And in this, a decrease in the competencies of manufacturing enterprises is strongly felt. Every year they are becoming less and less, and complex work is becoming more and more expensive.

The next moment – with specialists. We constantly need some kind of contact with people who make satellites in order to determine the exact requirements for our system, because this is part of it. It is very difficult in Russia to find people who will answer our questions. Almost always, they are employees of state-owned enterprises, who make contact very hard due to secrecy or skepticism about commercial developments. It is not yet possible to establish a partnership with a satellite manufacturing company that could provide such support to us.

– Why is Roskosmos not making contact, is it in their interests?

– In the current paradigm of the federal space program, the words “commercialization”, “efficiency” and “development of small and medium-sized businesses” are absent. Today, the state does not sufficiently support the development of relations between such development groups as we and the state corporation. An environment for the development of innovative space companies in the framework of public-private partnerships has not been created.

– How do you think things are in the Russian cosmonautics? Everyone is talking about SpaceX. What can we potentially surprise in the field of development?

– Unfortunately, there are few successes. The activities of Roscosmos enterprises are saturated with "megaprojects" – this is a difficult "Angara", and the lunar program. Looking the truth, it can be said that these projects do not have commercial prospects, and space today is turning into a business space in which new laws are in force. You see, Russia is not there, on the crest of relevant space technologies. There is India, China and even New Zealand, but Russia is not. The situation needs to be changed, and first of all it concerns strategic planning for the development of the industry, modernization of the approach to development. In conclusion, I can only add that everyone talks about SpaceX in many respects deservedly.

– How does brain drain affect this process?

– This is rather a consequence, not a cause. I know many specialists who left, not because they like American culture or they dreamed of living in Europe, but because their needs for professional realization cannot be satisfied. No projects, no inspiring activities. In fact, no one cares about the specialists who are currently graduating and still have a competitive level of education.

The graduates of Baumanka of the Roskosmos enterprise are hired without question. The question is what salary. Sometimes the department heads can reach the salary of a young specialist to an acceptable level, but the growth is minimal, and my experience shows that you find yourself in an unhealthy environment where crazy R&D lasts ten years, and during that time, everything changes.

– Do you have any groundwork for partnership in your project with foreign countries?

This is our plan and vital necessity, since for our existence we need a customer, but in Russia we do not have one. We attend international conferences, establish contacts with startups that develop devices. Plus, we are developing the direction of developing subsystems. Europeans began inviting us to test control systems in their laboratories. We also establish trade relations with China. Although there is a problem of exporting such products from Russia, as some internal restrictions are included both on the part of the customer and the supplier.

Photo: www.avantspace.com

– What would you ask Ilona Mask if you had a personal meeting?

– I really want to talk with him about the future, about large international projects that will be relevant in 20-30 years: orbital power plants, asteroid mining, space tourism – how does he imagine this?

How it works?

The working fluid of the engine is injected into the discharge chamber. The engine can run on xenon, argon, krypton or even iodine. At this stage, tests are carried out with xenon. An inductor connected to an RF generator creates an alternating electromagnetic field. It interacts with free charges in the discharge chamber, and as a result of collisions between particles, xenon atoms are ionized. Positively charged ions are directed to the ion-optical system, where a constant electric field between the electrodes accelerates them to tens of km / s. The ion flow created in this way generates traction.

The device is designed for satellites weighing 50-500 kg. Possible applications are not limited to LEO (low Earth orbits), but also include long-range space missions. Due to the very high specific impulse, the use of an engine on board the spacecraft reduces the mass of fuel needed to complete the mission and increases the life of the satellite. All necessary subsystems are included in the GT-50 package. The general architecture of the system is modular, which makes it flexible, and its integration into the spacecraft is cheaper and simpler.

Photo: www.avantspace.com

– Cosmonautics and everything connected with it – it seems that this is more likely a male industry. How many women now work in this area, if we take Russia? In general, can it be said that men and women have equal access?

– Traditionally, there are more men in the industry, but, in my opinion, our people have long understood that women should not be underestimated. I believe that the industry is provided with equal access, since when I entered the department "Rocket Engineering" of Moscow State Technical University. Bauman, I did not reduce points for the exam on the basis of gender. Honestly, the problems of gender prejudice concern me extremely rarely.

– You entered the engineering profession secretly from your parents, although in your childhood you were professionally engaged in gymnastics. Why? How did you prepare to enter?

– At 15, I received a spinal injury that is incompatible with sports, my horizons were narrow, and I did not devote enough time to education, so mathematics was my favorite among school subjects – you can not know anything, but, based on basic logic, without preparation to take everything at 5 and even participate in the Olympics. When I stopped training, abruptly and irrevocably, I was terribly bored, since I was used to spending 4 hours every day in the gym, and my whole day was scheduled in minutes. Out of boredom, I began to solve problems and entered the Lyceum at Baumanka, and then to the university. I didn’t do it in secret, it’s just that my parents worked a lot and found out about my decisions on the fact of accomplishment. I chose a specialty based on my youthful romantic ideas about outer space, and in connection with the great enthusiasm for what kind of world was open to me in the Lyceum, I absorbed information with incredible appetite; I read Feynman's lectures and Nietzsche’s works all night. I was preparing for admission like all lyceum students – solving hundreds of problems.

My parents were shocked, but they didn’t tell me anything, only a few years later I found out that they went to my math teacher with a request to save me from terrible decisions. But she convinced them otherwise. Now I understand that they respected me so much that they did not stop, forbid, I think it is very wise.

– You have a small child. Is it difficult to combine work and family and how does it work?

– Yes, it’s not easy, I had to introduce severe time management, in general, no book on personal growth will pump you as a child. But you need to understand that my life is built on the colossal support of my husband, and indeed the whole family. Plus, the relations in our work team are very close, we are united by one goal, I can always count on understanding and insurance. If we succeed, it will be the merit of many people.

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