NASA Funds Additional Smallsat Research Projects

Two three-unit (3U) CubeSats. At about a foot in length and four inches wide, these are similar in design to IceCube and the five selected heliophysics CubeSats. (Credit: NASA)
Two three-unit (3U) CubeSats. At about a foot in length and four inches wide, these are similar in design to IceCube and the five selected heliophysics CubeSats. (Credit: NASA)

With CubeSats and other types of small satellites are being launched in increasing numbers, there’s a race on to develop new technologies to vastly improve their capabilities and extend their range to the moon, Mars and other deep space destinations.

NASA has been at the leading edge of this technology development effort. Last week, the space agency announced its plans to fund four small-satellite research projects. The projects include phase II funding for three Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Program proposals and one NASA Innovative Advance Concepts (NIAC) proposal.

NASA selected the following STTR Phase II projects for negotiations include:

  • an ultra-miniaturized star tracker for small satellite attitude control, which is being developed by Creare, Inc., of  Hanover, NH, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University of Daytona Beach, FL;
  • an advanced advanced green micro-propulsion system, which is a collaboration of Systima Technologies, Inc., of Kirkland, WA, and the University of Washington’s Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics in Seattle; and,
  • a conjugate etalon spectral imager (CESI) and scanning etalon methane mapper (SEMM), which is being pursued by Wavefront, LLC, of Basking Ridge, NJ, and the Utah State University Research Foundation of North Logan, UT.

Each of the STTR Phase II contracts are worth as much as $750,000 and last a maximum of two years.

NASA also selected Marco Pavone of Stanford University for a NIAC Phase II award, which is worth up to $500,000. Pavone’s concept involves deploying a fleet of small spacecraft/rover hybrids from mother ships to explore asteroids, comets and moons by tumbling and hopping across their surfaces.

“Our architecture relies on the novel concept of spacecraft/rover hybrids, which are surface mobility platforms capable of achieving large surface coverage (by attitude-controlled hops, akin to spacecraft flight), fine mobility (by tumbling), and coarse instrument pointing (by changing orientation relative to the ground) in the low-gravity environments (micro-g to milli-g) of small bodies,” according to the project description. “The actuation of the hybrids relies on spinning three internal flywheels, which allows all subsystems to be packaged in one sealed enclosure and enables the platforms to be minimalistic, thereby reducing the cost of the mission architecture.”

Summaries of the four projects are below.

SBIR PHASE II PROPOSALS

PROPOSAL TITLE: Ultra-Miniaturized Star Tracker for Small Satellite Attitude Control
RESEARCH SUBTOPIC TITLE: Innovative Subsystems for Small Satellite Applications

SMALL BUSINESS CONCERN & RESEARCH INSTITUTION

Creare, Inc.
Hanover, NH

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Daytona Beach, FL

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR/PROJECT MANAGER

Dr. Paul Sorensen
Creare, Inc.
Hanover, NH

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

Begin: 4
End: 7

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

Creare and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) propose to complete the design, development, and testing of an ultra compact star tracker specifically intended for small satellites such as the CubeSat platform. Our design is based on proprietary “folded optics” technology previously developed by ERAU for use in military and commercial optical applications that require a compact footprint and high performance. Furthermore, the design utilizes recent advances in high pixel count CMOS imaging sensor technology. The folded optics design is superior to conventional refractive optics in miniature star trackers because (1) the compact footprint is achieved without sacrificing accuracy; (2) the light-gathering aperture is much greater, leading to better sensitivity; (3) the aperture geometry makes the shielding baffles smaller; and (4) the imaging sensor can be shielded efficiently from cosmic radiation. During the Phase I project, we demonstrated a pointing accuracy of the order of 1 arc second testing a brassboard model of our design. We furthermore completed the design, performed analysis to determine the optimal design parameters, and confirmed the brassboard sensitivity and resolution. In Phase II, we will fabricate the optimized design, test the prototype in the laboratory and in the field, and deliver the prototype to NASA so that NASA can fly the prototype on a NASA high-altitude balloon mission.

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

Many NASA science missions are exploring the use of pico- and nano-satellites as alternatives to expensive, large satellites. In order to enable their mission profiles, these satellites need high accuracy attitude determination sensors. Our star tracker will enable highly precise attitude determination (i.e., 1 arc second or better) in a package that is significantly smaller, has much lower mass, and uses less power than any alternative star trackers on the market with comparable accuracy. As the market for and uses of small and nano satellites increases, the demand for our star tracker will increase to enable missions that are not possible with today’s technology. Furthermore, the compact star tracker will enable high accuracy attitude determination on sounding rockets and high-altitude balloon missions, which will be useful for a variety of science payloads.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

Both the military and commercial ventures are looking to small satellites to provide a cost effective space mission platform. However, the majority of missions still require high attitude accuracy. There is therefore a need for compact high-accuracy star tracker technology. Furthermore, the military is looking at star trackers for high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attitude determination. These will typically need to provide arc-second accuracy in a small form factor with low power demands, which makes our proposed miniaturized star tracker ideally suited. Furthermore, our reflective optics can readily be adapted to act as a powerful telescope for imaging applications in both the visible band and in the near and far infrared spectrum. This opens up applications in reconnaissance, surveillance, and search and rescue operation.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

Inertial (see also Sensors)
Navigation & Guidance
Optical

PROPOSAL TITLE: Advanced Green Micropropulsion System
RESEARCH SUBTOPIC TITLE: Space Power and Propulsion

SMALL BUSINESS CONCERN & RESEARCH INSTITUTION

Systima Technologies, Inc.
Kirkland, WA

University of Washington
Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics
Seattle. WA

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR/PROJECT MANAGER

Stephanie Sawhill
Systima Technologies, Inc.
Kirkland, WA

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

Begin: 3
End: 5

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

Systima in collaboration with University of Washington is developing a high performance injection system for advanced green monopropellant AF-M315E micropropulsion systems (0.1 – 1.0 N) for small- and micro-satellites and cubesats (100 kg-500 kg and

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

Green monopropellant micropropulsion systems with Systima’s high performance injector offer safer handling, reduced system complexity, decreased launch processing times and increased performance compared to conventional hydrazine micropropulsion systems, and are well suited for a wide range of NASA spacecraft missions. Spacecraft micropropulsion systems with Systima’s high performance injector can be used for; orbit maintenance, fine attitude control, troubleshooting and maintenance, and potential needs for quick response at relatively high Isp.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

Green monopropellants offer significant advantages in performance and reduced handling infrastructure for commercial and military small and micro satellites and payloads, and allow for modular designs for rapid response capabilities. Systima’s injector technology is well suited for micropropulsion systems for orbital insertion or transfer, stationkeeping and drag compensation and attitude control.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

Fuels/Propellants
Maneuvering/Stationkeeping/Attitude Control Devices

PROPOSAL TITLE: Conjugate Etalon Spectral Imager (CESI) & Scanning Etalon Methane Mapper (SEMM)
RESEARCH SUBTOPIC TITLE: Science Instruments for Small Missions (SISM)

SMALL BUSINESS CONCERN & RESEARCH INSTITUTION

Wavefront, LLC
Basking Ridge, NJ

Utah State University Research Foundation – SDL
North Logan, UT

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR/PROJECT MANAGER

Dr. Jie Yao
Wavefront, LLC
Basking Ridge, NJ

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

Begin: 4
End: 5

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

Development of the CESI focal plane and optics technology will lead to miniaturized hyperspectral and SWIR-band spectral imaging instrumentation compatible with CubeSat and other nanosat platforms. The project will implement the technology by developing a CubeSat-compatible SEMM instrument for global mapping of atmospheric methane concentrations.

Specific Phase I technical objectives include:

  • Perform a trade study comparing the performance potential of alternate concepts for a miniaturized spectrometer with respect to the methane mapping mission.
  • Demonstrate that the image of a scene collected through an interferometer is a product of the scene radiance pattern with the interferogram.
  • Build a laboratory prototype and demonstrate enhanced detection of a multi-line molecular absorption band.
  • Test novel detector devises suitable for high-gain, low-noise SWIR imaging in a nanosat setting.
  • Develop the instrument architecture for SEMM and validate the concept analytically by a radiometric model.
  • Design the high sensitivity, low-noise SWIR focal plane for SEMM.

The CESI project is undertaken by Wavefront LLC with the Space Dynamics Lab (SDL) collaborating as the research institution. The key personnel are the Project Manager and the Principle Investigator (from Wavefront) and the scientists (from SDL). The duration of Phase I is 12 months.

During Phase II, SDL will prototype the complete CESI instrument incorporating Wavefront’s novel high-sensitivity focal plane and readout over 24-month duration.

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

NASA Applications for the CESI technology include:

  • hyperspectral imaging of terrestrial and planetary surfaces;
  • remote atmospheric analysis, e.g. sounding and solar occultation;
  • sensitive, high-gain SWIR detectors and focal planes;
  • photon-counting focal planes and miniaturized spectrometers for planetary missions;
  • global methane mapping of the Earth in support of the Earth System mission.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

Commercial applications for the CESI technology include:

  • perspectral earth imaging for applications in minerology, agriculture, environmental management, etc;
  • night-vision, laser protection, miniature cameras, and other low-light applications;
  • high-sensitivity focal planes for flash lidar and free-space optical communications; and
  • prosthetic vision aids for low-vision patients.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

Infrared

NIAC PHASE II PROPOSAL

Spacecraft/Rover Hybrids for the Exploration of Small Solar System Bodies
Marco Pavone
Stanford University

Spacecraft/rover hybrids (Credit: Marco Pavone)
Spacecraft/rover hybrids (Credit: Marco Pavone)

Description

The goal of this effort is to develop a mission architecture that allows the systematic and affordable in-situ exploration of small Solar System bodies, such as asteroids, comets, and Martian moons.

Our architecture relies on the novel concept of spacecraft/rover hybrids, which are surface mobility platforms capable of achieving large surface coverage (by attitude-controlled hops, akin to spacecraft flight), fine mobility (by tumbling), and coarse instrument pointing (by changing orientation relative to the ground) in the low-gravity environments (micro-g to milli-g) of small bodies.

The actuation of the hybrids relies on spinning three internal flywheels, which allows all subsystems to be packaged in one sealed enclosure and enables the platforms to be minimalistic, thereby reducing the cost of the mission architecture.

The hybrids would be deployed from a mother spacecraft, which would then act as a communication relay to Earth and would aid the in-situ assets with tasks such as localization and navigation.

In Phase I, we demonstrated that the bounding assumptions behind our proposed mission architecture are reasonable, and have a sound scientific and engineering basis.

Phase II has two objectives. First, to advance from TRL 2 to TRL 3.5 the mobility subsystem of the hybrids (comprising planning/control and localization/navigation), with the aid of a unique test bed for low-gravity surface mobility and parabolic flight tests on a zero-g airplane. Second, to study at a conceptual level (TRL 2) system engineering aspects for the hybrids, with a focus on power, in the context of a mission to Mars’ moon Phobos.

Collectively, our study aims to demonstrate that exploration via controlled mobility in low-gravity environments is technically possible, economically feasible, and would enable a focused, yet compelling set of science objectives aligned with NASA’s interests in science and human exploration.

Indeed, while controlled mobility in low-gravity environments was identified by the National Research Council in 2012 as one of NASA’s high priorities for technology development, it has never been demonstrated in a high-fidelity low-gravity test bed. Hence, this proposal, if successful, would provide a sought-after and currently unavailable capability for small bodies exploration.