Altius Space Machines Technology Selected for SBIR Phase II Funding

NASA has selected an in-space cryogenic fluids project by Jon Goff’s Altius Space Machines for negotiations on a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II. These contract is worth up to $750,000 over two years.

“While all cryogenic rocket stages have to have a propellant fill/drain coupling for loading propellant on the ground, existing designs are not capable of in-space refuelability,” Goff said in his proposal.  “A dual-purpose coupler that could be used for both ground fill/drain and for in-space refueling would be extremely valuable.

“In this proposed SBIR Phase II research effort, Altius Space Machines proposes continuing the development of just such a dual-purpose, lightweight, high-flow cryogenic propellant coupling to enable both ground fill/drain and in-space refueling,” the application states.

A summary of the proposal follows.

Proposal Title:
Lightweight, High-Flow, Low Connection-Force, In-Space Cryogenic Propellant Coupling
Subtitle Topic:
Cryogenic Fluid Management for In-Space Transportation

Small Business Concern
Altius Space Machines, Inc.
Broomfield, CO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Jonathan Andrew Goff

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 6

Technical Abstract

Three of the key abilities needed for making future NASA and commercial launch and in-space transportation systems more affordable and capable are:

a) the ability to “live off of the land” via in-situ resource utilization (ISRU),
b) the ability to reuse in-space transportation hardware, and
c) the ability to leverage continuing advancements in lower-cost earth-to-orbit transportation.

All of these abilities require the ability to transfer large quantities of cryogenic liquids (Oxygen, Hydrogen, and Methane) between tanks on separate vehicles. While all cryogenic rocket stages have to have a propellant fill/drain coupling for loading propellant on the ground, existing designs are not capable of in-space refuelability. A dual-purpose coupler that could be used for both ground fill/drain and for in-space refueling would be extremely valuable.

In this proposed SBIR Phase II research effort, Altius Space Machines proposes continuing the development of just such a dual-purpose, lightweight, high-flow cryogenic propellant coupling to enable both ground fill/drain and in-space refueling. This coupling incorporates an innovative new cryogenic sealing architecture to enable a coupling with very low insertion/extraction forces, for manual, robotic, and astronaut-connected cryogenic propellant transfer operations.

In Phase I, Altius demonstrated the innovative new cryogenic sealing architecture, and performed insertion/extraction and leak tests, demonstrating significant improvements over traditional spring-energized polymer seals, raising the TRL from 2 to 3 at the end of Phase I.

In Phase II Altius will continue refinement of the cryogenic sealing architecture, and will design, fabricate, and test a family of couplers based on this architecture, and focused on an industry-provided launch vehicle application. Testing of the ground and in-space couplers during Phase II will raise the system TRL to 6, paving the way for Post-Phase II flight demonstration (yielding TRL 9).

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Potential NASA applications include:

1- An integrated T-0 fill coupling for EUS that enables in-space refueling with the same coupling. This would enable refueling of the EUS upper stage in LEO or other in-space locations, enabling stage reuse, and/or launch of much larger payloads to deep space trajectories.

2- Fueling of Martian or Lunar Ascent Vehicles or future fully-reusable Mars or Lunar landing vehicles from ISRU production facilities.

3- Distributed launch for very high-energy robotic science missions.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Potential Non-NASA applications include:

1- A combined T-0 coupling/in-space cryogenic transfer coupling that can be integrated into future upper stage designs, such as the planned ULA ACES or New Glenn cryogenic upper stages.

2- In-flight topoff couplings for air-launched liquid-propellant launch vehicles.

3- Refueling of commercial cryogenic stages in space for distributed lift missions, enabling direct insertion to GEO, or high energy earth departures for science missions.

4- Other terrestrial applications that could benefit from a low-connection force cryogenic coupling, such as automated LH2 fueling for fuel-cell cars.

5- The innovative cryogenic sealing architecture also has elements that could potentially be extrapolated to low insertion force, resettably-self-fusing high-power electrical connectors.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Cryogenic/Fluid Systems
  • Fasteners/Decouplers
  • Fuels/Propellants
  • Pressure & Vacuum Systems
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Tools/EVA Tools