Goff’s Altius Space Machines Snags NASA SBIR Award for Mars Sample Return System

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 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 Altius Space Machines, a new startup from Jon Goff who is late of Masten Space Systems. Goff’s Colorado-based company is working on a system to assist NASA with its Mars Sample Return mission.

COMPANY:Altius Space Machines, Inc.
LOCATION:Louisville, CO
PROPOSAL TITLE:An ElectroAdhesive “Stick Boom” for Mars Sample Return Orbiting Sample Capture
SUBTOPIC TITLE:Rendezvous and Docking Technologies for Orbiting Sample Capture


The Electroadhesive “Sticky Boom”, an innovative method for rendezvous and docking, is proposed for the Orbiting Sample Capture (OSC) portion of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. This technology carries the advantages of greatly reducing the probability of accidental collisions, high inherent reliability from mechanical and guidance simplicity, lower propellant consumption, avoidance of plume impingement, high tolerance for relative spacecraft misalignment, very low mass and volume requirements, and reliable non-mechanical contact and proximity detection. The system consists of an electrically activated electro-adhesive pad used for spacecraft capture, mounted flexibly on the end of a low volume/weight retractable boom. The research proposed in phase 1 aims to design a system optimized for MSR mission and demonstrate the reliable functionality of the system in simulated space environments raising the TRL from a 2 to a 3. This effort ends with a system design for a flight testbed for testing during Phase 2, thus further elevating the TRL to 5-6. Also covered are numerous other applications of the technology, which allows for docking with spacecraft not design for docking as well as capture of uncooperative targets and debris. Interest in application of this technology has been show by industry entities such as ULA.


In addition to the Mars Sample Return OSC retrieval mission, technology based on the Sticky Boom concept has applications in:

  • Any of the Flagship Technology Demonstrator missions which focus on autonomous rendezvous and docking
  • Propellant depots, as reliable docking will be key to mission success
  • Capture devices for active removal of orbital debris

The electrostatic adhesion pad itself, once proven for use in the space environment also has other applications separate from boom rendezvous:

  • Robotic systems such as Robonaut which could benefit from more flexible means of movement on space stations rather than current rail bases systems
  • Gripping surfaces for boots and gloves to improve EVA safety and flexibility.


Outside NASA, there is significant interest in rendezvous and docking systems that do not require the target vehicle to be predesigned for the mission, cooperative, or even controlled at all. Applications of this sort include:

  • Space tugs for refueling or servicing existing space craft
  • “Uncooperative” rendezvous and docking efforts, which DoD is interested in
  • Debris capture for paid orbital debris removal services.
  • “Life-extension” services or “orbital rescue” services, where a satellite that has either lost control, or is near the end of its propellant reserves can have its life extended by a servicing satellite.
  • Other orbital servicing missions including ORU replacement
  • A docking system enabling high-tempo delivery of propellants to propellant depots using “dumb” propellant tankers
  • Simplification of the rendezvous/docking process for crew/cargo deliveries to orbital facilities.


Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 3