Bob Zubrin’s Company Snags Three SBIR Awards for Lunar, Martian Projects

NASA recently announced that it would be conducting contract negotiations for 350 projects under its SBIR and STTR programs, which are aimed at promoting space technology development and transfer by small businesses. Parabolic Arc will be looking at a number of the proposals involving NewSpace companies that it regularly covers or which encompass interesting technologies.

This post looks at Pioneer Pioneer Astronautics, a Colorado-based company run by Mars Society Founder Robert Zubrin. NASA selected three of the company’s SBIR proposals, including ones related to nitrous oxide micro-engines, Martian water extraction, and lunar oxygen production. Descriptions follow after the break.

COMPANY:Pioneer Astronautics
LOCATION:Lakewood, CO
PROPOSAL TITLE:Nitrous Oxide Micro Engines
SUBTOPIC TITLE:Propulsion Systems

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

Nitrous Oxide Micro Engines (NOME) are a new type of nitrous oxide dissociation thruster designed to generate low levels of thrust that can be used for RCS control in large satellites or as main propulsion in micro-satellites. Nitrous is the ideal propellant choice for RCS control in satellites due to the fact that it is non-toxic, non-cryogenic, easily storable, self-pressurizing, and cost effective (unlike monopropellant engines that use hydrazine or hydrogen peroxide which are toxic and/or dangerous, increasing ground costs). NOME engines will have all the desirable features of other monopropellant engines (i.e. simplicity of design, restartable/control on demand, and repeatability) NOME engines will also have a comparable ISP to current monopropellant engines (near 190s) but will be made to achieve greater simplicity and lower handling costs than current systems. NOMEs will have over double the Isp of cold gas reaction control systems.

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

Potential applications for NOME are numerous for NASA. NOME technology would be a novel hardware solution for anywhere an inexpensive, simple, low-thrust rocket engine could be used. Particular areas of interest would be RCS control of satellites, and main propulsion for micro-satellites, or even for propulsion of free-flying telerobots (such as have been discussed for Shuttle, Orion, ISS, or Hubble inspection applications). Currently, the primary RCS propellant used on spacecraft is hydrazine, which is extremely toxic and which therefore greatly complicates and increases the cost of ground handling operations prior to launch. Another key advantage for NASA would be the use of NOME RCS for any spacecraft that employs nitrous technology for other applications. NOME thrusters could be used for ultra fine control EVA thrusters if a nitrous breathing system was being employed, or used as RCS on a manned spacecraft which employed a nitrous-based oxygen supply system. The breathing and NOME subsystems could draw their nitrous from the same reservoir, thus adding to the over all simplicity of the system. Furthermore, NOME could be used on any spacecraft that used a nitrous based main propulsion system (either as a monopropellant, or combining nitrous with a hydrocarbon in a bipropellant or hybrid engine). The overall result of using a non-toxic RCS propellant that serves other spacecraft functions as well would produce major gains in performance and system simplicity.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

NOME technology also has the potential to be applied to numerous different areas. The first of these potential applications would be high altitude or undersea fuel cells. When nitrous is dissociated it produces nitrogen and oxygen gas. The oxygen gas could then be used with either hydrogen or methanol fuel cells to produce electricity. The nitrous reactor could be run for a short time to pressurize a cylinder with a plug of nitrogen/oxygen mix, which could then slowly be siphoned off to be used within a fuel cell. Another particularly interesting technology would be to pass the NOME reactor exhaust through a turbine and, using a generator, creating a very compact miniature power unit. NOME reactors could also include use on micro Sea Gliders to produce rapid buoyancy changes in this type of vehicle over very small periods of time. These small sea gliders would be able to travel underwater without propeller noise, providing numerous potential applications for both civil and military undersea use. NOME technology could also be used to create gas generators that could supply emergency breathing gas to trapped miners, people in underground shelters, or submarines through dissociation of reserve nitrous oxide.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

Essential Life Resources (Oxygen, Water, Nutrients)
Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Propulsion
Fuels/Propellants
Generation
Maneuvering/Stationkeeping/Attitude Control Devices
Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
Spacecraft Main Engine
Teleoperation
Vehicles (see also Autonomous Systems)

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 5

COMPANY:Pioneer Astronautics
LOCATION:Lakewood, CO
PROPOSAL TITLE:Mars Regolith Water Extractor
SUBTOPIC TITLE:Regolith/Soil Transfer, Handling, & Processing of Extraterrestrial Material

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

The Mars Regolith Water Extractor (MRWE) is a system for acquiring water from the Martian soil. In the MRWE, a stream of CO2 is heated by solar energy or waste heat from a nuclear reactor and then passed through a vessel containing Martian soil freshly removed from the ground. The hot CO2 will cause water absorbed in the Martian soil to outgas, whereupon it will be swept along by the CO2 to a condenser chamber where ambient Martian cold temperatures will be used to condense the water from the CO2. The CO2 is then pumped back to the heater where it is reheated and recirculated back to the soil vessel to remove more water. Measurements taken by the Viking mission showed that randomly gathered Martian soil contains at least 1% water by weight, and probably more than 3%. This being the case, the MWRE should prove to be a highly effective way of acquiring water on Mars. By doing so, it will eliminate the requirement to transport hydrogen to Mars in order to make methane fuel, and allow all the propellant needed for a Mars to Earth return flight to be manufactured on Mars using a Sabatier/electrolysis (S/E) cycle, without any need for auxiliary oxygen production through zirconia cells, reverse water gas shift cycles, or other systems. This is highly advantageous since the S/E cycle is the simplest and easiest to implement of all Mars in-situ propellant production methods. The ability to extract water from Mars will also serve to supply the crew of a Mars missions with copious supplies of water itself, which after propellant, is the most massive logistic component of a Mars mission. By eliminating the need to transport fuel, oxygen, and water to Mars, the MWRE will have a major effect in reducing the mass, cost, and risk or human Mars exploration.

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

The primary initial application of the MRWE is to provide a reliable, low cost, low mass technology to produce water, hydrogen, and liquid oxygen on the surface of Mars out of indigenous materials at low power. By doing so, it will eliminate the requirement to transport hydrogen to Mars in order to make methane fuel, and allow all the propellant needed for a Mars to Earth return flight to be manufactured on Mars using a Sabatier/electrolysis (S/E) cycle, without any need for auxiliary oxygen production through zirconia cells, reverse water gas shift cycles, or other systems. This is highly advantageous since the S/E cycle is the simplest and easiest to implement of all Mars in-situ propellant production methods. The ability to extract water from Mars will also serve to supply the crew of a Mars missions with copious supplies of water itself, which after propellant, is the most massive logistic component of a Mars mission. By eliminating the need to transport fuel, oxygen, and water to Mars, the MWRE will have a major effect in reducing the mass, cost, and risk or human Mars exploration. In addition, small versions of the MWRE could be used to help make the return propellant for a Mars sample return (MSR) mission on the Martian surface, thereby making such a mission both cheaper to launch and much easier to land, as the landing mass limits of current aeroshells will not be exceeded. This could be an enabling development for the MSR mission.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

The MRWE could be useful in arid terrestrial climates. Nations in arid areas, particularly the Middle East and North Africa, have spent billions of dollars on construction of evaporative and reverse osmosis desalination plants for irrigation and use for the populace. Yet water is still routinely rationed in many of these countries. Even in the driest regions of the Earth, the soil is several times wetter than on Mars, and the MRWE will operate an order of magnitude more efficiently. Even if desalination technology remains more economical in coastal areas, MWRE units using solar concentrators to provide heat offer many advantages for millions of potentials users in landlocked nations such as Mali, Niger, or Chad. Regions that are too far from the coastline to economically pipe water in, such as the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, or the Western Desert in the United States, may also be potential markets. It should be noted that in contrast to water obtained from natural liquid sources, the condensate obtained from water vaporized out of the ground will be pure, and much safer to drink than other supplies that may be available in underdeveloped areas. MRWE units sized for vehicles traveling in desert regions are also an attractive option. Such units could reduce logistical requirements for the military and could also supply civilians operating in remote areas. The MRWE concept would be ideal for these applications since it is very lightweight, cheap, and portable.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

Conversion
Essential Life Resources (Oxygen, Water, Nutrients)
Fuels/Propellants
Generation
Heat Exchange
In Situ Manufacturing
Pressure & Vacuum Systems
Processing Methods
Resource Extraction
Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
Surface Propulsion

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 5

COMPANY:Pioneer Astronautics
LOCATION:Lakewood, CO
PROPOSAL TITLE:Regenerable Contaminant Removal System
SUBTOPIC TITLE:Gas, Liquid, and Solid Processing to Produce Oxygen and Fuels from In-Situ Resources

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

The Regenerable Contaminant Removal System (RCRS) is an innovative method to remove sulfur and halide compounds from contaminated gas streams to part-per-billion levels in support of lunar oxygen production. A series of high efficiency sorbents sequentially removes contaminants at temperatures above dew point. Sorbents are regenerated, and contaminants are recovered in concentrated form. The RCRS is installed downstream from lunar soil reduction reactors to protect hardware from corrosion, to protect catalysts from poisoning, and to reduce the load on aqueous contaminant removal processes used in advance of electrolysis. Custom, high-porosity, high-capacity sorbents are used to minimize sorbent mass and sorption reactor volume while also minimizing process pressure drop. Sorption reactor volumes are small compared to the volume of soil reduction reactors. High porosity and sorbent durability are imparted through the use of organic and inorganic fillers and binders during manufacture of the sorbents. The RCRS imposes very little parasitic load on ISRU oxygen recovery systems during the course of sorbent regeneration and recovery of contaminant byproducts. The basic RCRS process can be tailored to provide contaminant removal for a wide range of reducing gas compositions.

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

The primary initial application of the Regenerable Contaminant Removal System is for sulfur and halide capture and recovery in support of lunar oxygen production. The RCRS has direct use to both protect ISRU hardware and catalysts and to produce useful amounts of byproducts for future lunar ISRU applications.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

High temperature sulfur and halide capture have been the focus of work related to biomass and coal gasification for chemical or fuels synthesis and fuel cell applications. Alternatives to low-temperature wet chemical systems have been sought to avoid the capital and operating expenses associated with chilling process gases for contaminant removal and subsequent reheating for the intended applications. The Regenerable Contaminant Removal System has the potential to provide novel solutions to the growing use of fossil fuels and biomass in new conversion technologies.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

Processing Methods
Resource Extraction

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 4