Orbion brings a piece of the space age to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

In an area best known for backwoods lifestyles, a space propulsion startup headed by a U-M alum is thriving

July 21, 2022
Lyon (Brad) King pictured with the plasma thruster his company designed to move small satellites around in orbit. Image credit: Michigan Photography
Lyon (Brad) King pictured with the plasma thruster his company designed to move small satellites around in orbit. Image credit: Michigan Photography

University of Michigan alumnus Lyon (Brad) King acknowledges that Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is rural—but don’t call it remote. 

He chose to build his company, Orbion Space Technology, in Houghton in part because of its vibrant community of innovators connected with Michigan Technological University. The other part? He wanted to continue living near Lake Superior among the forests and waterfalls, rivers and lakes, snowmobile trails and ski hills.

“The quality of life in northern Michigan is unbeatable,” said King, who is also the Richard and Elizabeth Henes Professor of Space Systems Engineering at Michigan Tech. “I am fortunate to be professionally doing what I love and living where I want to live.”

King—who has doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s degrees in aerospace engineering from U-M—and co-founder Jason Sommerville have also made that possible for other engineers who hailed from Michigan and landed at labs and companies around the country, thinking they would have to live far from home if they wanted to pursue space science. 

Engineers at NASA, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Ball Aerospace waved goodbye to densely populated metropolises to join Orbion in Houghton. King says he hasn’t lost a single engineer since Orbion began hiring employees in 2016.

One of those hires was Robert Washeleski, who earned his Ph.D. in King’s lab in 2012. Originally from the Detroit area, Washeleski came to love Houghton as an undergraduate student in electrical and electronics engineering at Michigan Tech.

“It’s a great place to live,” he said. “I love the four seasons, and I really like winter—skiing, snowshoeing, even plowing.”

But he hadn’t seen much of a future there for an engineer, and he was delighted when the Lincoln Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hired him. The work at Lincoln Lab was fulfilling—including the design of chemical propulsion systems and ​full life-cycle support for government space programs. However, the commute and high cost of living in Boston were drawbacks. 

So when Washeleski heard that King and Sommerville were starting a company and needed engineers with experience taking a design from a blank sheet all the way to space, he joined up as an engineering specialist in 2018 and was promoted to vice president of flight programs last year.

“It’s been great building the company here,” said Washeleski, adding that a space company in the UP, “was something I never saw happening.”

But the area has been growing, fed in part by Michigan Tech startups and remote work. King’s company has been part of that growth, making a place for space in Houghton.

An experiment testing the Aurora plasma thruster. Image credit: Orbion Space Technology
An experiment testing the Aurora plasma thruster. Image credit: Orbion Space Technology

Orbion designs and manufactures plasma thrusters—specifically Hall thrusters—that move small satellites around in space. Prized for its efficiency, electric propulsion is rapidly becoming the preferred method for getting around in orbit, particularly for the small satellites that ride-share on a single rocket and then need to take their positions. 

“They’ll use our propulsion system to travel from their ‘bus stop’ orbit to their destination,” King said. “Once they’re at their orbital position, they might need to occasionally adjust to a new mission, or they might need to avoid collisions with other satellites or space junk. So they’ll use our thruster to do those movements. 

“And third and finally, about seven years down the road, they’ll use our thruster with the last remaining propellant to deorbit the satellite and burn it up, so they don’t leave junk in space.”

But the picture was different in the early 1990s, when King first got his hands on an early version of the technology. Manufactured in the Soviet Union, the propulsion method was more of an academic curiosity west of the Berlin Wall. Alec Gallimore, now the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering but an assistant professor at the time, was one of the first university researchers in the U.S. to explore electric propulsion. He’s the reason that King came back for his Ph.D.

King stuck with electric propulsion, starting his own lab at Michigan Tech in 2000. Within a couple of years, he was consulting on government satellite projects through his company, Aerophysics Inc. However, as electric propulsion became a viable technology for the rapidly growing market of small commercial satellites, he saw an opportunity that his existing company couldn’t pursue. 

Instead, he would need to produce for a much larger market, and so Orbion was born. Six years on, it has received $30 million in funding and employs more than 40 engineers. It counts Raytheon and General Atomics among its customers.

“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Why did you found a rocket company in northern Michigan?'” King said. “And I tell them northern Michigan is as close to space as anywhere on the planet.”