Aurora Wins SBIR, STTR Awards for Mars and CubeSat Sample Return Technology

Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation was one of the big winners when NASA announced its intention to negotiate SBIR and STTR agreements earlier this month. Four of the company’s SBIR proposals were among those chosen for negotiations along with an STTR proposal.

One of the SBIRs involves a collaboration with MIT to develop a system to capture a Martian sample return capsule launched from the surface of the Red Planet for a NASA mission. The STTR proposal is a collaboration with the Georgia Institute of Technology Center for Space Systems to develop a system to allow small small probes to return experiments from Earth orbit.

Details for both projects are shown below. I’ve also included information about three other SBIR projects that include an ISS battery recharging system, catalytic combustors for very high altitude air-breathing propulsion, and propulsion control sampling algorithms.

SBIR

PROPOSAL TITLE:SPHERES Mars Orbiting Sample Return External Orbiting Capture
SUBTOPIC TITLE:Rendezvous and Docking Technologies for Orbiting Sample Capture
COMPANY:Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation
LOCATION:Manassas, VA

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

NASA’s Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission scenario utilizes a small Orbiting Sample (OS) satellite, launched from the surface of Mars, which will rendezvous with an Orbiter/Earth Return Vehicle (ERV). When the radio beacon-equipped OS is within range of the ERV’s optical sensors, the ERV will optically track and approach the OS, maneuvering itself to place the OS within its capture device.

One of the key technologies required to accomplish this mission involves a low-mass, highly reliable mechanism that detects contact with and captures the OS, and, once the OS is captured, moves the OS to a containment area for the return trip to Earth. There is an on-going body of research into such capture mechanism designs and the various advantages and challenges of these technologies. Aurora Flight Sciences and its research partner, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Space Systems Laboratory (SSL), propose to develop a flight-quality OS-detection and capture mechanism design based on research data and experience with the Mars Orbiting Sample Retrieval test bed and develop a risk-mitigation strategy that utilizes the International Space Station as a system checkout and launch platform for system testing in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This proposal leverages the state-of-the-art research into sample capture mechanisms, contact dynamics and capture mechanism detection methods and builds on the team’s experience with the Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, and Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) system to develop a low cost, LEO test strategy that minimizes the risk for later Mars deployment.

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

The primary application for the Capture Mechanism and SPHERES/ISS test strategy is in support of the NASA Mars Sample Return mission. A successful Phase1/Phase 2 project would result in a system design ready for implementation, integration, test and deployment with the MSR mission. While designed for MSR, the capture mechanism design and risk-mitigation test approach has applications for additional NASA sample-return missions, such icy-moons. Additionally, a successful demonstration of the cost-effective use of the ISS as a system checkout and launch platform has significant benefits to NASA in reducing the cost and risk of testing small systems in LEO.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

We anticipate that there are also applications beyond NASA, particularly in the military and commercial sectors. For example, the capture mechanism design may have applications such as the capture and control of space debris in Earth Orbit threatening strategic and/or commercial assets within similar orbits. Such a mechanism, when used in conjunction with a debris tracking and control system, could approach and capture such debris and then maneuver the captured material either to a different orbit, or, if in LEO, to a reentry trajectory to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

Actuators & Motors
Autonomous Control (see also Control & Monitoring)
Deployment
Relative Navigation (Interception, Docking, Formation Flying; see also Control & Monitoring; Planetary Navigation, Tracking, & Telemetry)

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:

Begin:
6
End: 6

STTR

PROPOSAL TITLE:Small Probes for Orbital Return of Experiments (SPORE)
RESEARCH SUBTOPIC TITLE:Small Probe Entry Descent and Landing Systems
SMALL BUSINESS CONCERN (SBC):RESEARCH INSTITUTION (RI):
NAME:Aurora Flight Sciences CorporationNAME:Georgia Institute of Technology Center for Space Systems
CITY:Manassas, VACITY:Atlanta, GA

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

Analogous to the CubeSat standardization of micro-satellites, the SPORE flight system architecture will utilize a modular design approach to provide low-cost on-orbit operation and recovery of small payloads. The Phase 1 investigation will evaluate a scalable flight system architecture consisting of a service module for on-orbit operations and deorbit maneuvering, and an entry vehicle to perform entry, descent and landing (EDL). The design space for the SPORE system architecture is shown in Figure 1. Flight system designs capable of accommodating payload volumes ranging from 1-unit (1U) dimensions of 10x10x10 cm to 4U dimensions of 20x20x20 cm will be investigated. The proposed system will be capable of flight operations and return from low-Earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). The SPORE design can be launched as a primary or secondary payload into LEO or GTO, or it can be deployed from the International Space Station (ISS).

A CubeSat

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

Aurora believes the market for a science platform that allows access to the space environment while returning the experiment for laboratory examination is growing rapidly. Microgravity experiments traditionally flown on the Shuttle mid-deck for up to a week before returning to Earth will require alternative flight platforms. There is a forthcoming capability gap between sounding rocket flights and longer duration ISS flights. SPORE has the benefit of filling a market niche not filled by short duration sounding rockets providers, and where ISS flight time is unavailable or too complex or expensive. Researchers requiring longer duration exposure to the space environment lack a capability in between several minute sounding rockets flights and months-long ISS missions. SPORE also provides lower cost and flexible scheduling for ISS downmass.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

Aurora has already begun looking at additional markets for the SPORE system. In addition to commercial launch vechile TPS testing and commercial experimental payload missions, SPORE subsystem technology can be inserted into non re-entering CubeSats. CubeSats have become a de-facto standard for low-cost access to space. SPORE however adds significant capability to the basic CubeSat platform. For this reason Aurora feels that in addition to marketing complete SPORE systems, many SPORE technologies can be inserted into commercial CubeSats providing additional capabilities and expanding the revenue potential of SPORE. Examples of these technologies include propulsion system concepts which could provide CubeSats a limited altitude or plane change capability or payload accommodation architecture that could allow CubeSats to provide greater payload support in the form of thermal control or data handling.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

Entry, Descent, & Landing (see also Planetary Navigation, Tracking, & Telemetry)
Spacecraft Design, Construction, Testing, & Performance (see also Engineering; Testing & Evaluation)

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

SBIR

PROPOSAL TITLE:SPHERES/Universal ISS Battery Charging Station
SUBTOPIC TITLE:ISS Utilization
COMPANY:Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation
LOCATION:Manassas, VA
International Space Station

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

With the retiring of the shuttle fleet, up-mass and down-mass to ISS are at a premium. The space station itself has a limited lifecycle as well, thus long-term and/or high-risk development programs pose issues for science ‘return on investment’, if the technology cannot be adequately matured before the station is decommissioned. Thus innovative systems and technologies that minimize impact on limiting resources such as up-mass and down-mass, and can do so in the near- to mid-term, are highly desirable. One such area includes the various rechargeable battery systems on ISS used extensively for cameras, camcorders, laptops, communication systems and other portable science and diagnostic equipment.

All new rechargeable batteries intended for use on ISS must undergo an extensive and costly qualification process, to ensure they meet safety criteria for charge, discharge, short-circuit, temperature, containment and other parameters. The associated recharging systems must also undergo rigorous safety analysis before obtaining flight approval. To alleviate this requirement, new battery powered equipment for ISS is often selected based on legacy technology already approved for crewed-space applications, and not on operational need. The use of shared battery resources (battery packs, battery chargers or both), for future ISS payloads could reduce or eliminate the time and cost needed to obtain battery system safety approval, and reduce the burden on valuable up-mass resources.

A common (universal) battery charging system for ISS, with the flexibility to accommodate current and future rechargeable battery requirements for payloads and equipment, could reduce the cost use of the ISS by future payload developers. This would not only simplify the safety and integration process for these programs, but also reduce up-mass by making use of existing ISS resources.

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

The proposed innovation serves to increase the science capability of ISS, by enabling the extended use of SPHERES and other battery-operated facilities. The establishment of the ISS as a National Laboratory has significantly enhanced the accessibility of its facilities to organizations outside of NASA and the DOD, including other governmental agencies, research institutions and commercial entities. The universal charger enables use of these facilities beyond the retirement of the shuttle.

On the government side, the development of a universal charger forms the basis for space research that is at the core of NASA and the DOD. The proposed system provides an upgrade to existing ISS facilities to greatly increase the lifetime of onboard assets. The addition of a universal charger to the SPHERES testbed and other facilities allows for increased research capabilities.

SPHERES itself has multiple applications: it is a precursor to technology maturation for inspection satellites for ISS and other manned and unmanned NASA vehicles. Its forthcoming visual-based navigation system enables algorithm development in support of new applications such as standoff cameras for unmanned systems, imaging terminal capture for mars sample return missions, and will support a constantly changing workspace during robotic assembly and servicing missions. All of these applications will require additional battery systems and could benefit from the use of a universal charging system for ISS.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

DoD applications include the enabled use of ISS research facilities for multiple purposes. Additionally, opportunities may exist in the commercial, institutional and government sectors to ‘sell’ test time on SPHERES (and other ISS facilities that have been enabled by this innovation) to organizations for developing and validating vision and assembly capability for future satellite applications. This service could be analogous to the way in which the National Testing Service (NTS) provides facility rental and support for both commercial entities and institutions. Table 1 shows projected return on investment for selling SPHERES test time on ISS. Since SPHERES is the only known long duration, microgravity test facility for the development of satellite maneuvering algorithms, an opportunity exists to extend usage of this testbed to organizations outside of NASA.

While the proposed innovation itself is not expected to be commercially profitable as a stand-alone item, it enables future researchers to reduce ISS payload development costs, and reduces up-mass overhead for future launches to ISS, thus creating a significant return on investment.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

Algorithms/Control Software & Systems (see also Autonomous Systems)
Autonomous Control (see also Control & Monitoring)
Hardware-in-the-Loop Testing
Relative Navigation (Interception, Docking, Formation Flying; see also Control & Monitoring; Planetary Navigation, Tracking, & Telemetry)

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:

Begin: 2
End: 3

SBIR

PROPOSAL TITLE:Thermally Stable Catalytic Combustors for Very High Altitude Airbreathing Propulsion
SUBTOPIC TITLE:Combustion for Aerospace Vehicles
COMPANY:Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation
LOCATION:Manassas, VA
Aurora's Very High-Altitude Propulsion System (VHAPS). (Credit: Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation)

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

Aerospace vehicles operating at high altitudes have the potential to be less expensive and more versatile alternatives to space based systems for earth/space science, communications, and surveillance. However, the operational flexibility of these vehicles is limited by the performance of the propulsion system. In gas turbine systems low temperatures and pressures at the combustor inlet are of concern for combustion stability and efficiency at high altitudes. The overall objective of the proposed work is to assess the feasibility of developing a high performance airbreathing combustor for hydrogen-fueled very high altitude aircraft by promoting stable combustion using thermally stable catalytic reactor technology. Our combustor concept baselines the use of strontium-substituted hexaaluminate catalyst supports, which are resilient to temperatures greater than 1500 K. In Phase I an active catalyst that provides high reactivity with hydrogen at representative conditions will be identified through laboratory testing. An empirical model of catalyst reactivity will be developed and integrated with a reactor model to produce a conceptual design of a full scale combustor for a defined very high altitude gas turbine system. The catalytic rector that will be developed through this effort represents a new, enabling technology that will dramatically increase the flexibility of aerospace vehicles.

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

NASA has shown recent interest in the use of hydrogen fuel as a means of substantially reducing the carbon emissions from commercial aircraft. A potential problem with a hydrogen-based system is that nitrogen oxides emissions may be difficult to control. The thermally stable catalytic combustor technology that will be developed through this effort may provide an approach to control the NOx emissions from a hydrogen-based aircraft platform. In addition, this technology provides a capability to extend the operating range of hydrogen-based gas turbine based propulsion systems to very high altitudes that may enable new aircraft platforms for earth and atmospheric science initiatives at NASA. Additionally, this catalyst technology could find use in other systems of interest to NASA that operate at high altitudes, such as supersonic/hypersonic vehicles or balloon-based systems, and may require additional thrust, power, or a high heat source.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

The proposed thermally stable catalytic combustor technology is a key to providing combustion stability in hydrogen-based gas turbine based propulsion systems operating at very high altitudes. Such propulsion systems are critical to a multitude of missions employing unmanned aerial vehicles. These systems are of significant interest to the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In addition, this technology may have potential to provide emissions reduction in stationary gas turbine systems used for power generation. This is of interest to the U. S. Department of Energy.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

Atmospheric Propulsion
Fuels/Propellants

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

SBIR

PROPOSAL TITLE:Incremental Sampling Algorithms for Robust Propulsion Control
SUBTOPIC TITLE:Robust Propulsion Control
COMPANY:Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation
LOCATION:Manassas, VA

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

Aurora Flight Sciences proposes to develop a system for robust engine control based on incremental sampling, specifically Rapidly-Expanding Random Tree (RRT) algorithms. In this concept, the task of accelerating or decelerating the engine is treated as a path planning exercise. The control system actively searches for actuator inputs that allow the engine to traverse power settings without entering undesired regions of operation. The search is based on the sequential construction of control actions that satisfy feasibility constraints given the system dynamics. These algorithms have been proven to converge to the optimal solution through repeated iteration. RRTs allow for an efficient search of the solution space, reducing the computational expense of determining the best sequence of inputs with which to control the engine. This allows an efficient, online method for an engine to adapt and recalibrate to unexpected operational conditions.

Orion UAV (Credit: Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation)

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

The proposed incremental sampling control technology could have a direct impact on the ability of an aircraft engine to autonomously adjust for unforeseen, adverse conditions. NASA has previously been involved in developing these sorts of technologies for aircraft systems in the Integrated Resilient Aircraft Control (IRAC) project. The proposed technology would allow for similar resilient characteristics on engine systems. This technology could be applied to a variety of NASA research areas requiring complex propulsion control, such as hypersonic flight.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

The ability of systems to autonomously perform complicated planning processes is becoming increasingly important in modern aircraft. This is especially true with UAV’s, which do not have the native ability of human operators to analyze and react to unexpected events. The proposed technology can be applied to increase the reliability of a variety of autonomous and remotely piloted vehicles as part of a global robust flight control for almost any UAV application. This can contribute to increased reliability and help reduce concerns about UAV operation over populated areas or in heavily trafficked airspace.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

Algorithms/Control Software & Systems (see also Autonomous Systems)
Atmospheric Propulsion

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:

Begin: 1
End: 2

ABOUT AURORA FLIGHT SCIENCES
www.aurora.aero

Aurora Flight Sciences strives to maintain a “can do” culture and a “frontiers of flight” mentality. We are committed to research, testing, and verification in a hands-on environment staffed by exceptional people. Risk must be accepted. Our core values include:

  • The integrity of data presented is essential
  • A sense of urgency and a bias towards action must be maintained
  • The focus should be on fixing problems rather than blame
  • The merit of ideas is more important than their originator’s position in the company
  • Personal accountability must be instilled throughout the organization
  • Leadership is best done by example

The personal commitment Aurora’s 300 highly specialized engineers, programmers, managers and technicians have to these values give Aurora the strength and integrity to become a small business with the leadership, drive, expertise and capability of companies many times its size.

LOCATIONS

Aurora has operations in four states:

Manassas, VA
Engineering / Product Development

Bridgeport, WV
Manufacturing

Columbus, MS
Manufacturing / Final Assembly

Cambridge, MA

Research & Development