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Zenno Astronautics pioneers the future of sustainable space exploration

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21 July 2021

Sustainable space travel may be on the horizon with University of Auckland alumni venture Zenno Astronautics’ development of a fuel-free satellite control and propulsion system. This technology is part of Zenno’s greater mission to create cutting-edge hardware and software that make space exploration sustainable and commercially compelling.

Founded by former University of Auckland Engineering (Honours) student Max Arshavsky, Zenno pioneers applications of super-magnets in sustainable space exploration. Their magnet propulsion system powered by solar panels could, in theory, keep satellites in space indefinitely and remove the need for traditional rocket propulsion beyond what is needed to lift an object into orbit.

The biggest challenge being addressed by Zenno’s technology is that of simply moving objects from one place to another. “Getting anything to move around in space is hard,” says Max. “You don’t have anything to push on and you never have enough power or fuel to make things move much. What we build lets you move without using much power, without using any fuel, and while taking up less space and mass than traditional systems. It also scales a lot better than competing technologies.”

Another challenge faced by the team, a little closer to home, is time zones. Zenno collaborates with partners from around the globe, which means that the team may find themselves arriving at the lab for a live demonstration at 3am. However, Max is dedicated to ensuring the wellbeing of his small, close knit team. He says, “Everyone helps each other out. Even at the New Zealand end we aren’t all in the office at the same time so we do a lot of work online. I strongly encourage the team to take days off if they’re tired and discourage them from working long hours. We don’t pull all-nighters or weekends. Our priority is to stay fresh, well-rested and enthusiastic about what we do, so that we make high quality decisions and produce good work.”

The newest addition to the Zenno team is COO Reuben Brown, who picked up the role after six years as a Strategic Projects Manager at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Engineering. In 2017, Reuben was part of the project team that created Unleash Space, the University’s vibrant innovation hub and maker space run by the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE). He says, “When Max approached me about the vacant position, I naively thought he wanted me to suggest some people for the job. Given that I’ve got kids and a mortgage, I did have to think about it. But it was clearly going to be fun, interesting, and offer lots to learn, so I just decided to give it a go.

“I’ve worked in a variety of roles and business cultures, but I’ve never had the chance to work at a company that is still in its starting phase, where I’d have the chance to directly influence and take responsibility for its longer term direction. I like that at companies like Zenno, you can see the direct impact of what you do, and there aren’t layers of bureaucracy and process regarding progress and feedback.”

Originally from Russia, Max didn’t expect to stumble upon innovation and entrepreneurship when he moved to New Zealand at 18. He studied Biomedical Engineering at the University of Auckland before dropping out to work in project management. When he heard about the launch of the University’s Auckland Programme for Space Systems (APSS), he decided to return and pursue a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) in Engineering Science. He says, “The APSS Mission Proposal Competition helped us realise that we might actually be able to solve some real world problems. We’ve always enjoyed a bit of an adventure, so we thought we might as well give innovation and entrepreneurship a go.”

In 2018, Zenno entered and went onto win the $100k Challenge run by Velocity, the University of Auckland’s student-led entrepreneurship development programme, winning a $25,000 grant and a spot in CIE’s VentureLab incubator programme. Max says, “It was just great to have the support from CIE early on. It was good to have some private space to work from and experienced people to consult with. Most importantly though, it was great to be respected and treated as real entrepreneurs. CIE succeeded at creating a safe environment where we could learn and prosper while being very fragile as a business, and I’m very grateful for this!”

When thinking about what drives his interest in understanding the universe, Max likes to point to astronomer Carl Sagan’s quote about the pale blue dot, in which Sagan comments on a photo of Earth taken from 6.4 billion kilometers away by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on its way out of our solar system. Max says, “Our ultimate aim at Zenno is to build an electro-magnetic acceleration tunnel that would allow for interplanetary spacecraft transfer and orbital acceleration. Why? Because I’m curious. I want to know – what’s beyond the pale blue dot?”

University of Auckland wins international award for entrepreneurship education
University of Auckland wins international award for entrepreneurship education

social media

21 July 2021

Sustainable space travel may be on the horizon with University of Auckland alumni venture Zenno Astronautics’ development of a fuel-free satellite control and propulsion system. This technology is part of Zenno’s greater mission to create cutting-edge hardware and software that make space exploration sustainable and commercially compelling.

Founded by former University of Auckland Engineering (Honours) student Max Arshavsky, Zenno pioneers applications of super-magnets in sustainable space exploration. Their magnet propulsion system powered by solar panels could, in theory, keep satellites in space indefinitely and remove the need for traditional rocket propulsion beyond what is needed to lift an object into orbit.

The biggest challenge being addressed by Zenno’s technology is that of simply moving objects from one place to another. “Getting anything to move around in space is hard,” says Max. “You don’t have anything to push on and you never have enough power or fuel to make things move much. What we build lets you move without using much power, without using any fuel, and while taking up less space and mass than traditional systems. It also scales a lot better than competing technologies.”

Another challenge faced by the team, a little closer to home, is time zones. Zenno collaborates with partners from around the globe, which means that the team may find themselves arriving at the lab for a live demonstration at 3am. However, Max is dedicated to ensuring the wellbeing of his small, close knit team. He says, “Everyone helps each other out. Even at the New Zealand end we aren’t all in the office at the same time so we do a lot of work online. I strongly encourage the team to take days off if they’re tired and discourage them from working long hours. We don’t pull all-nighters or weekends. Our priority is to stay fresh, well-rested and enthusiastic about what we do, so that we make high quality decisions and produce good work.”

The newest addition to the Zenno team is COO Reuben Brown, who picked up the role after six years as a Strategic Projects Manager at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Engineering. In 2017, Reuben was part of the project team that created Unleash Space, the University’s vibrant innovation hub and maker space run by the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE). He says, “When Max approached me about the vacant position, I naively thought he wanted me to suggest some people for the job. Given that I’ve got kids and a mortgage, I did have to think about it. But it was clearly going to be fun, interesting, and offer lots to learn, so I just decided to give it a go.

“I’ve worked in a variety of roles and business cultures, but I’ve never had the chance to work at a company that is still in its starting phase, where I’d have the chance to directly influence and take responsibility for its longer term direction. I like that at companies like Zenno, you can see the direct impact of what you do, and there aren’t layers of bureaucracy and process regarding progress and feedback.”

Originally from Russia, Max didn’t expect to stumble upon innovation and entrepreneurship when he moved to New Zealand at 18. He studied Biomedical Engineering at the University of Auckland before dropping out to work in project management. When he heard about the launch of the University’s Auckland Programme for Space Systems (APSS), he decided to return and pursue a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) in Engineering Science. He says, “The APSS Mission Proposal Competition helped us realise that we might actually be able to solve some real world problems. We’ve always enjoyed a bit of an adventure, so we thought we might as well give innovation and entrepreneurship a go.”

In 2018, Zenno entered and went onto win the $100k Challenge run by Velocity, the University of Auckland’s student-led entrepreneurship development programme, winning a $25,000 grant and a spot in CIE’s VentureLab incubator programme. Max says, “It was just great to have the support from CIE early on. It was good to have some private space to work from and experienced people to consult with. Most importantly though, it was great to be respected and treated as real entrepreneurs. CIE succeeded at creating a safe environment where we could learn and prosper while being very fragile as a business, and I’m very grateful for this!”

When thinking about what drives his interest in understanding the universe, Max likes to point to astronomer Carl Sagan’s quote about the pale blue dot, in which Sagan comments on a photo of Earth taken from 6.4 billion kilometers away by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on its way out of our solar system. Max says, “Our ultimate aim at Zenno is to build an electro-magnetic acceleration tunnel that would allow for interplanetary spacecraft transfer and orbital acceleration. Why? Because I’m curious. I want to know – what’s beyond the pale blue dot?”


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