A major cost driver in the satellite communications industry is the cost of launch, particularly where geostationary orbit (GEO) is required. Transfer from low Earth orbit (LEO) to GEO using electric propulsion has been proposed to cut costs, but is currently still not used. What is clearly needed is a new electric propulsion technology offering a significant improvement in performance.

In 2001 a small UK company, Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd (SPR), was set up to carry out an R&D programme into a revolutionary electrical propulsion concept. The proposed technology would provide direct conversion from electrical energy to thrust, without the need to expel any form of propellant. The system performance offered would halve the cost of launch to GEO and extend the operational lifetime of the satellite.

Significant preparatory work had already been carried out, and resulted in the award of a feasibility study under the DTI SMART programme. This study completed the theoretical work and enabled an experimental programme to be carried out. The resulting test data confirmed the theoretical thrust predictions. The study results were independently reviewed and further support was then given by the DTI in the form of a Research and Development grant. This grant, together with PV investment and company loans, has enabled a Demonstrator Engine to be built and successfully tested in both static and dynamic test rigs.

In a parliamentary reply on 5 December 2006, Margaret Hodge, the Minister of State for Industry and the Regions stated that funding for this pioneering project required that highly qualified technical experts and academics carried out an assessment on behalf of the department

Successful completion of this assessment has resulted in the final payment of government funds being made to SPR Ltd.