NASA Selects Smallsat Technology Projects for SBIR Funding

Credit: NASA

NASA has selected nine small satellite technology projects for funding under the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Each contract is worth up to $750,000 over two years.

The proposals include:

Antara Teknik, LLC
Granite Bay, CA
Efficient and Secure Network and Application Communications for Small Spacecraft

Busek Company, Inc.
Natick, MA
Milliarcsecond Small Spacecraft Attitude Control System

CU Aerospace, LLC
Champaign, IL
Fiber-fed Advanced Pulsed Plasma Thruster (FPPT)

Froberg Aerospace, LLC
Rolla, MO
Multi-Mode Micropropulsion

Gener8, Inc.
Sunnyvale, CA
Integrated Waveguide Optical Gyroscope

Innoflight, Inc.
San Diego, CA
Compact Multi-Protocol Modem

Tethers Unlimited, Inc.
Bothell, WA
MakerSat

Valley Tech Systems, Inc.
Folsom, CA
Affordable Small Satellite Launch Vehicle Reaction Control System

Vector Launch Inc.
Tucson, AZ
Flight Demonstration of a Micropump-based Stage Pressurization System

Summaries of the proposals follow.

Efficient and Secure Network and Application Communications for Small Spacecraft
Subtopic: Small Spacecraft Communication Systems

Antara Teknik, LLC
Granite Bay, CA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mehmet Yavuz Adalier

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 5
End: 7

Technical Abstract

For complex missions that are away from Earth’s resources, there is an unmet need for more autonomous operations with minimal Earth contact. Additionally, secure proximity- and autonomous-communication among various types of space vehicles are needed to implement complex and time-varying networks of spacecraft and sensors, which are capable of sharing rich, near-real-time streams of information.

Efficient, secure, mission-configurable, and dynamic key management and cipher suites supporting multiple QoS levels for the bundle protocol are required to augment current and future Delay and Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) solutions to satisfy these mission requirements. Antara’s innovation will enhance the security of NASA’s DTN implementations, specifically, the Interplanetary Overlay Network (ION), and deliver a standards driven adaptation of the Constrained Application Protocol (CoAP) over the bundle protocol (CoAP-over-bp).

Phase II activities include the development of taraCoAP Cyber-Physical Autonomous Asset Observation and Management module. Further R&D will drive the Elliptical Curve Crypto Key Management and Distribution module, the interoperable AntaraTek Cipher Suite for BPSec, and the scalable taraCoAP to TRL-7.

The AntaraTek software will also be tested with ISS DTN payload communications (e.g., TReK). Additionally, the software will be infused to rad-hard FPGAs and future compute platforms such as the High Performance Spaceflight Computing chiplet. Utilizing the ION framework will lower the cost and the time to develop a high TRL solution and reduce implementation risk.

Antara’s innovations will deliver higher security and performance relative to existing system technology, support complex and time-varying networks, scale to large networks, and enable secure communications for the Solar System Internet. Successful deployment of the innovation will address NASA technology gaps TA5.3.1 and TA5.3.3 and enhance the state-of-art for DTN implementations.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The proposed efficient and secure low-power communications system, based on delay and disruption tolerant inter-networking, is a horizontal, fundamental enabling capability which will support multiple NASA applications and missions including the Solar System Internet.

The proposed innovations will be applicable to planned and new missions by enabling the integration of standards-based, low-power, and secure key management and application communication components to the DTN network architecture/ION to provide scalable, flexible and secure bi-directional communications for swarms of spacecraft, satellite, and other applicable systems.

Antara’s innovations will directly support NASA use-cases such as ISS DTN communications and Autonomous Operations and Complex Network Topologies as described in TA5.3. The successful deployment of the innovations in space will help lower operational costs of systems by replacing manual scripting and commanding of individual spacecraft communications links.

Additionally, the innovations will enable secure proximity communications and autonomous communication among various types of space vehicles to implement complex and time-varying networks of spacecraft and sensors that are capable of sharing rich, near-real-time streams of information.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Public Service and Safety: The technology will provide interoperable communications and real-time information sharing among Department of Homeland Security/FEMA first responders during disasters to effectively mitigate against threats and hazards.

Defense and Intelligence: The innovation will integrate with existing and future Software Defined Radio based communications devices and Situational Analysis/Battle Management apps to rapidly infuse emerging DTN based capabilities in order to enhance the resiliency of Mobile Ad-hoc Networks and securely extend the reach of forward deployed forces to increase tactical agility, facilitate collaboration, coordinated actions, and robust access to mission-critical data, information, and knowledge.

Commercial/Internet of Things: The innovation will securely enhance IoT applications in stressed environments such as cargo and vehicle tracking, global asset tracking, smart-city Machine to Machine communications, and humanitarian relief monitoring.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Ad-Hoc Networks (see also Sensors)
  • Algorithms/Control Software & Systems (see also Autonomous Systems)
  • Architecture/Framework/Protocols
  • Autonomous Control (see also Control & Monitoring)
  • Command & Control
  • Man-Machine Interaction
  • Network Integration
  • Prototyping
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Simulation & Modeling

Milliarcsecond Small Spacecraft Attitude Control System
Subtopic: Small Spacecraft Avionics and Control

Busek Company, Inc.
Natick, MA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. Daniel Courtney

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 4
End: 5

Technical Abstract

Busek proposes to develop a highly modular attitude control system (ACS) which will provide orders of magnitude improvements over state-of-the-art alternative ACS for CubeSats. The low inertia of CubeSats combined with vibrational disturbances and resolution limitations of state-of-the-art ACS presently limit body-pointing and position control accuracy.

Busek’s electrospray thrusters aboard the ESA LISA Pathfinder spacecraft recently demonstrated precision control at nm scales; this work extends that success to CubeSat platforms. Passively fed electrospray thrusters are highly compact, including fully integrated propellant supplies, and are capable of ~100nN thrust control at 10’s of nN noise. Thrust can be throttled over >30x, to a scalable maximum of 10’s of uN.

These traits, combined with >900s Isp enable these systems to replace traditional reaction wheel ACS; improving pointing error from arcsecs to 10’s of milliarcsec. This work addresses critical development gaps, in both thruster-heads and a multi-axis power processing unit, presently gating the technology.

Phase I established a thorough baseline dataset, which confirmed critical performance metrics, and established development gaps. Phase II will emphasize total impulse goals and thruster system maturation.

Task 1 will execute design modifications developed in Phase I and augment existing test capabilities. Task 2 will identify and address impulse limiting mechanisms. Task 3 will develop and validate solutions to known mechanical risks and incorporate evolved requirements into a low-mass engineering-model thruster module.

Task 4 will focus on power processing development, targeting a control architecture which maximizes the precision control capabilities of the technology and serves multiple thruster heads. These efforts will converge in Task 5 where engineering model thruster performance will be rigorously evaluated over a complete life demonstration.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

NASA’s 2015 technology roadmap recognizes the importance of electrospray propulsion to attitude control, formation flight and positioning of small spacecraft. Specific applications benefiting from precision pointing include astronomical missions, planetary (including earth) observations, laser communications and space situational awareness.

The greatly improved body pointing afforded by the proposed technology would present designers with previously unobtainable levels of stability and resolution; permitting both lower cost/complexity realization of existing needs and enabling new objectives in these fields.

Applications benefiting from highly precise position control include formation flights and missions requiring disturbance free flight. This includes drag-compensation enabling enhanced mission durations at low orbit altitudes below 350km.

The proposed work would allow small spacecraft, CubeSats and larger, to benefit from precision control in a manner akin to the NASA Disturbance Reduction System (DRS), featuring Busek thrusters, aboard the LISA Pathfinder mission.

Developing a highly featured PPU and controller would also enable other DRS sub-components, such as GSFC contributed control algorithms, to be applied over a wider NASA mission portfolio. Moreover, through replacing wheels or expanding wheel de-saturation capacity in deep space missions, the proposed work would decrease spacecraft size/complexity and enable new missions.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Compact propulsion systems that are scalable in both thrust and deltaV without loss of performance are an enabling technology for CubeSat missions and therefore have numerous commercial applications. Potential non-NASA customers include, international partners (such as ESA), the DoD and commercial EO missions.

The modular nature of the proposed technology would enable customized applications that simultaneously meet customer needs in precision pointing and disturbance compensation; therefore, maximizing the commercial applicability of the technology. The virtual elimination of vibrational jitter while superseding reaction wheel precision presents a clear competitive advantage.

The proposed system would be applicable to a myriad of CubeSat sizes from ~3U to >25kg; the market size is therefore large and includes rapidly growing platforms. Commercial applications may include optical communication alignment for high bandwidth up/downlinks or precision pointing during EO missions in low orbits.

De-orbiting applications are particularly relevant to new LEO EO and telecommunication initiatives. International consensus is forming around the need for orbital debris management, which poses risks to functioning space assets. The proposed system could enable precision attitude control and a de-orbit means from a single integrated system; thus reducing the burden of integrating a de-orbit system.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Attitude Determination & Control
  • Command & Control
  • Maneuvering/Stationkeeping/Attitude Control Devices
  • Navigation & Guidance
  • Relative Navigation (Interception, Docking, Formation Flying; see also Control & Monitoring; Planetary Navigation, Tracking, & Telemetry)

Fiber-fed Advanced Pulsed Plasma Thruster (FPPT)
Subtopic: Small Spacecraft Propulsion Systems

CU Aerospace, LLC
Champaign, IL

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Curtis Woodruff

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 5
End: 6

Technical Abstract

CU Aerospace (CUA) proposes the continued development of a Fiber-fed Pulsed Plasma Thruster (FPPT) that will enable cis-lunar and deep space missions for small satellites. While classic PPT technology is mature, it has historically been limited by its propellant load to precision pointing and small delta-V applications.

A recent thruster advancement by CUA, Monofilament Vaporization Propulsion (MVP), adapted extrusion 3D printing technology to feed polymer propellant fiber to a resistojet thrust chamber. FPPT leverages this advancement by feeding PTFE fiber to its discharge region, enabling class-leading PPT propellant throughput and variable exposed fuel area.

An innovative, highly parallel ceramic capacitor bank dramatically lowers system specific mass. FPPT is inherently safe; its non-pressurized, non-toxic, inert propellant and construction materials minimize range safety concerns.

The Phase I effort accumulated more than 582,000 pulses, with thrust-stand measured Ibits from 0.057 – 0.241 mN-s at 960 – 2400 s specific impulse, representing a dramatic enhancement from state-of-art PPT technology.

A Phase II 1U FPPT thruster will provide 2200 – 4900 N-s total impulse, enabling 0.4 – 1.0 km/s delta-V for a 5 kg CubeSat. A 1U design variation with 590 g propellant enables as much as ~10,000 N-s and 2 km/s for a 5 kg CubeSat. Advancing the technology to a 2U form factor increases propellant mass to 1.4 kg and delta-V to 10.7 km/s for an 8 kg CubeSat.

CUA anticipates delivering to NASA a life-tested flight-like > 2,000 N-s 1U integrated system by the end of Phase II including the advanced thruster head with igniter system, PTFE fiber feed system, power processing unit, and control electronics.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Historically, pulsed plasma systems have targeted small delta-V applications such as ACS. With the demonstrated high performance of CUA’s FPPT (Isp up to 2400 seconds) and its innovative propellant feed and storage system, FPPT exceeds the goals of the Z8.01 topic and outperforms previous state of the art PPT systems, as well as newer technologies. With an anticipated > 2,000 N-s total impulse from a 1U system, large orbit transfers and even inclination changes of tens of degrees are now available to smaller satellites.

The intrinsic safety of FPPT and its inert, unpressurized PTFE propellant position it as a prime candidate for secondary payload missions where costs and logistics are dominated by range safety concerns. The solid propellant has no handling, storage, or operational restrictions. The ease of handling and storage for the solid propellant can extend operation to planetary missions with no additional monitoring or controls.

FPPT system unit costs are anticipated to be significantly below competing CubeSat propulsion systems.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Commercial interest in very small satellites continues to grow. In the 1-50 kg satellite sector, launches have shifted from a fairly balanced distribution between civil, government, commercial, and defense (2009-2016) to a distribution dominated by commercial interests. Moving forward, it is more important than ever that these satellites have access to propulsion systems to extend their asset time on orbit.

The proposed thruster offers CubeSats and other small satellites a significant propulsion capability with high impulse per unit volume. The FPPT thruster will provide a compact, light-weight, non-hazardous propulsion technology solution that will be made available in a family of sizes that can meet the differing needs of users in DOD, industry, and universities for CubeSat and small-satellite missions.

FPPT will require no safety equipment for storage, transportation, integration, and testing, and place no demanding requirements on the launch provider, making it an ideal low-cost solution for industry, research, and academic small-satellite propulsion needs.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Ablative Propulsion
  • Fuels/Propellants
  • Maneuvering/Stationkeeping/Attitude Control Devices
  • Relative Navigation (Interception, Docking, Formation Flying; see also Control & Monitoring; Planetary Navigation, Tracking, & Telemetry)
  • Spacecraft Design, Construction, Testing, & Performance (see also Engineering; Testing & Evaluation)
  • Spacecraft Main Engine

Multi-Mode Micropropulsion
Subtopic: Small Spacecraft Propulsion Systems

Froberg Aerospace, LLC
Rolla, MO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr Steven Berg

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

Technical Abstract

This project will further development of a thruster capable of both chemical monopropellant and electrospray propulsion using a single “green” ionic liquid propellant. The thruster concept consists of an integrated microtube/electrospray thruster that shares all propulsion system hardware between electric and chemical thruster modes, i.e. one propellant, one propellant tank, one feed system, and one thruster.

Thus, the thruster is not significantly more massive than a standalone state-of-the-art chemical or electric thruster, but capable of either thrust mode and selectable as mission needs arise. This has several benefits, including the optimization of trajectories using both chemical and electric thrust manuevers as well as a significantly increased mission design space for a single propulsion unit.

The propulsion system is capable of both high impulse per unit volume and high thrust per unit volume as the total impulse per unit volume is 1500 N-s/U in the chemical thrust mode and 2750 N-s/U in the electric thrust mode, where either type of manuever could be selected on-the-fly. Operation and high performance in both modes has previously been demonstrated at the single emitter level.

The specific objectives for this study are to design and build a cubesat sized multi-emitter thruster and test in both chemical and electrospray modes of operation. Two thrusters will be built and separate chemical and electric thrusters tested in parallel. Then, back-to-back operation of a single thruster will be demonstrated and indirect and direct performance measurements will be acquired.

Additionally, the development of the multi-mode monopropellant will be furthered through material compatibility tests and hazard classification. Finally, system level items including PPU and and feed system components will be researched and selected and/or designed.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Multi-mode propulsion fulfills NASA technology needs as outlined in the In-Space Propulsion Technology Roadmap, monopropellant microthrusters and electrospray thrusters, as well as fulfilling needs highlighted by the National Research Council, specifically the need for both chemical and non-chemical propulsion that fulfills the needs for high mobility micro-satellites and extremely fine pointing and positioning for certain astrophysics missions.

Research has shown the benefits of multi-mode micropropulsion for NASA missions, including, more efficient small satellite formation flight, optimized attitude control, enhanced transfer rate and useful mass for Jovian missions, more favorable conditions for lunar impact, launch mass savings, and payload mass advantage to GEO.

Additionally, the flexibility of the multi-mode propulsion platform allows for a common unit to be used for many different types of missions, eventually reducing both risk and development time for many types of science payload missions.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Multi-mode micropropulsion has potential to meet Air Force needs for fractionated, composable, survivable, autonomous systems, i.e., satellites that can be assembled, tested, and launched within days of operational requirement.

Specifically, the large mission design space resulting from ability to select and complete chemical or electric maneuvers at will significantly enhances the capabilities of these ‘plug-and-play’ satellites. It has potential to impact the exploding small/CubeSat market, an estimated market value of $7.4B, with a predicted 360% increase in launches over the next 5 yrs, and future plans for competing space-based internet constellations.

The large mission design space enabled by multi-mode propulsion could be beneficial to this market in that a single, off-the-shelf system is capable of many different types of missions. An entirely new propulsion system would not have to be developed for each mission individually, reducing costs associated with development, testing, and risk.

Additionally, the multi-mode capability has been shown to drastically increase the mission capabilities of swarms or constellations of small satellites.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Fuels/Propellants
  • Maneuvering/Stationkeeping/Attitude Control Devices
  • Spacecraft Main Engine

Integrated Waveguide Optical Gyroscope
Subtopic: Small Spacecraft Avionics and Control

Gener8, Inc.
Sunnyvale, CA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. William Bischel

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

We propose a radical new approach for to the design and fabrication of an integrated Waveguide Optical Gyroscope (iWOG) that enables the development of very small IMU with near tactical grade performance, higher reliability, high level of robustness and lower cost.

Modeling demonstrate that the iWOG will have more than an order-of-magnitude improvement in bias stability over temperature (for the same volume) when compared to the highest performance commercially available MEMs gyroscope. The iWOG is also inherently radiation hardened and is the ideal technology for future CubeSat applications at NASA.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

This proposal will develop the key enabling component in a low cost, high precision inertial navigation system that would have 10 x better performance over MEMs navigation systems. Low cost, higher precision and low weight/power (SWaP) inertial sensors are necessary components for future NASA applications that include SmallSat, CubeSat, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and Sounding Rockets.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

A commercial market exists today for a new gyroscope technology that has a 10x improvement in bias stability over temperature and vibration when compared to best available MEMs gyroscope. The largest market is rotation sensors for Self-Driving Vehicles.

The proposed iWOG technology will result in the smallest volume optical gyroscope on the market today. It will also enable new DoD applications including airborne PODs, Line of Sight stabilization, weapon designation, individual soldier navigation, turret stabilization, and UAVs navigation

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Inertial
  • Inertial (see also Sensors)
  • Navigation & Guidance
  • Relative Navigation (Interception, Docking, Formation Flying; see also Control & Monitoring; Planetary Navigation, Tracking, & Telemetry)
  • Waveguides/Optical Fiber (see also Optics)

Compact Multi-Protocol Modem
Subtopic: Small Spacecraft Communication Systems

Innoflight, Inc.
San Diego, CA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Thao Pham

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

Technical Abstract

Legacy SDR (Software Defined Radio) has been somewhat hailed as the “be all, end all” solution to communications systems. Reality is that SDR platforms are challenged by the clock speed of the underlying processor, and the fact that waveform design is not a simple process. As missions keep pushing for higher throughput communications platforms, it is often the case that legacy SDR platforms cannot. It is also a common end result that the SDR power consumption is very high when compared to non SDR platforms. These factors pose quite a challenge for mobile platforms – spacecraft platforms in particular.

Innoflight is introducing advance Hybrid-SDR platforms together with Model Based System Engineering (MBSE) design flow. The combined technologies will provide a streamlined approach for the design of advanced multi-mode communications system that are applicable to NASA’s NEN (Near Earth Network), SN (Space Network), and DSN (Deep Space Network) infrastructure and are ready to support next generation optical (i.e. laser) communications.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

NASA applications include:

  1. CubeSat missions.
  2. Missions requiring advanced communications modes.
  3. Lunar and deep space missions.
  4. Optical communications systems.
  5. Balloons and UAVs.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Unmanned platforms are being deployed in many applications in the DoD and commercial sectors. Such platforms are used in terrestrial, aviation, and maritime applications. Such systems rely on numerous advanced network communication systems. Most of these applications are also sensitive to SWaP and will benefit from Hybrid-SDR performance.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Architecture/Framework/Protocols
  • Lasers (Communication)
  • Microwave
  • Models & Simulations (see also Testing & Evaluation)
  • Prototyping
  • Ranging/Tracking
  • Simulation & Modeling
  • Software Tools (Analysis, Design)
  • Telemetry (see also Control & Monitoring)
  • Transmitters/Receivers

MakerSat
Subtopic: Small Spacecraft Structures, Mechanisms, and Manufacturing

Tethers Unlimited, Inc.
Bothell, WA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. Blaine Levedahl

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

As SmallSats become the “Satellite of Choice” for NASA and other Government and Private Space Missions, there is a growing need to enable SmallSats to perform “Long Baseline” and “Spatially Diverse” observation, measurement and collection missions. Traditionally, these types of missions would be performed either by using formation flying or by using “large” satellites equipped with complex/advance deployable structures.

The proposed “MakerSat Demonstration Mission” effort addresses a third alternative for accomplishing this class of missions: In-Space Manufacturing “Constructable” technologies, that allow SmallSats to “grow / evolve” into significantly larger structures. A SmallSat that once on orbit can increase its size from one to two orders of magnitude provides an exciting option to formation flying or deployable structures.

The goal of the proposed effort is to develop a demonstration mission that proves the viability of Constructable technologies as an alternative solution for “Long Baseline” and “Spatially Diverse” observation, measurement and collection missions.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

SmallSats, including CubeSats, are quickly maturing technologically towards advanced capabilities, which will result in significant contributions to the achievement of NASA’s scientific and exploration missions. In fact, SmallSats are seriously being considered for complex, long duration missions to deep space locations and for Earth observing constellations.

However, while SmallSats have the benefit of small size and mass, making them generally easier and cheaper to launch, many space applications require larger physical sizes or alternate structural architectures. These applications can be realized through the innovation of novel In-Space Manufacturing ‘Constructable’ techniques that can drive the utility of SmallSats even further.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

In addition to direct NASA applications, the advancements from the proposed “MakerSat Demonstration Mission” effort for In-Space structural construction technologies would be directly applicable to constructing large structures in-space and enabling new missions in both the commercial space industry and the DoD. To support this assertion, TUI is already developing complementary in-space manufacturing technologies with both the DoD and commercial partners.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Antennas
  • Composites
  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Machines/Mechanical Subsystems
  • Structures

Affordable Small Satellite Launch Vehicle Reaction Control System
Subtopic: Small Launch Vehicle Technologies and Demonstrations

Valley Tech Systems, Inc.
Folsom, CA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mr. Russell Carlson

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

Due to the rapid maturity of small satellite technologies to meet near term commercial, science and military space applications there is a driving need for development of increased affordable space launch system capability.

To address this need, Valley Tech Systems is proposing a SBIR Phase II development of a new solid propulsion Reaction Control System (RCS) that leverages over 12 years and $12M of parallel MDA and USAF controllable solid propulsion missile interceptor and strategic deterrent propulsion technology investments.

This new technology will replace older, heavier and less preforming Cold Gas ACS products providing NASA and future launch system providers with increased capability with improved affordability. Our solid RCS is applicable to both a future commercial booster flyout Attitude Control System (ACS) applications and future Post Boost Propulsion System (PBPS) payload delta-v and ACS providing increased satellite orbital insertion accuracies.

The Phase II program will mature the new solid RCS technology to a TRL-6 ready for insertion into follow-on commercial launch system integration and flight testing. The result is a new affordable solid RCS that fills an identified critical technical gap for future affordable access to space.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle technology RCS has numerous direct applications including reaction control of launch booster and post boost payload control for small, medium and large satellite applications. In addition, the technology is indirectly applicable to future NASA applications such as: Mars lunar lander propulsion, Mars Ascent Vehicle Reaction Control System (MAV RCS), Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (HIAD) gas generation, and Towed Glider Air-Launch System (TGALS) applications.

Additionally, controllable solid thruster technology is indirectly applicable to future controlled gas generation application for power generation, long duration highly accurate satellite pointing/station keeping and liquid tank pressurization.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle technology is leveraging parallel DoD development efforts that is indirectly being applied to future MDA missile interceptor propulsion Divert and Attitude Control Systems (DACS) and booster ACS applications that yield ship board compatible capability with legacy liquid propulsion system like performance and impulse flexibility.

In addition, the USAF is considering in-directly applying the technology to future Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) Post Boost Propulsion and booster Roll Control System applications, taking advantage of inherent solid propellant affordability, safety, storability and compatibility with parallel Navy nuclear deterrent applications.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Maneuvering/Stationkeeping/Attitude Control Devices

Flight Demonstration of a Micropump-based Stage Pressurization System
Subtopic: Small Launch Vehicle Technologies and Demonstrations

Vector Launch Inc.
Tucson, AZ

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mr. James Robertson

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

Vector Launch, Inc. proposes to apply recent advances in micropump and additive manufacturing technologies to develop and demonstrate a micropump-based autogenous pressurization system for its commercial Vector-R and mature the technology with multiple static-fire-tests leading to a demonstration flight test (TRL 6).

The Vector-R is a 2-stage pressure-fed, LOX/subcooled propylene commercial small launch vehicle, designed to place up to 60 kg in low earth orbit. Electrically-driven micropumps drive a small portion of each propellant over a novel 3D-printed heat exchanger at the engine to pressurize the tanks. Excess flow can be diverted to the engine as needed.

This approach reduces system mass, complexity and acquisition cost as well as operational costs. It eliminates the need for all high-pressure tanks and associated components. It can be used on any pressure-fed stage, for launch vehicle and in-space application when using high vapor pressure propellants such as LOX/methane or LOX/propane. As such, it is an enabler for missions targeted to use in-situ propellants since the need for a separate pressurant like helium is either greatly reduced or eliminated.

By leveraging Vector’s ongoing commercially-funded Vector-R micro-launcher development, it is possible to reach TRL 6-ready system during Phase II and transition to the Vector-R operations (TRL-9) soon after.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The technology offers the means of drastically reducing the mass, complexity and cost of pressure-fed propulsion stages employing high vapor pressure propellants like LOX, methane, propylene and propane. The reductions in costs apply to both acquisition and operational costs of propulsive stages since the proposed system is simpler and lighter.

Applications include small launch vehicle stages where turbo-pumps are inefficient and cost-prohibitive. For Vector, the immediate application of the technology which will benefit NASA is the Vector-R launch vehicle. This vehicle is designed to provide dedicated launch services to nanosats up to 60 kg, with planned operations starting in July 2018.

Candidate small spacecraft which could benefit from dedicated launch services or reduced launch costs provided by the technology include numerous CubeSats and nanosats in development at NASA or funded by NASA, such as NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative and Educational Launch of Nanosatellites.

Longer-term potential applications include future missions to Mars and other bodies which use pressure-fed systems, whether directly or in conjunction with pump-fed engines. For Mars ascent, this technology is particularly attractive when using in-situ propellants since it eliminates the need for a pressurant like helium. The application of this technology for Mars missions is likely to be years away.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

With the Vector-R micro-launcher, Vector is positioning itself to provide responsive, dedicated launch to the micro- and nanosat market expected to burgeon in the next few years.

Candidate small spacecraft which could benefit from dedicated services or reduced launch costs provided by the technology include commercial entities operating constellations, such Planets (formerly known as Planet Labs) and Google’s Terra Bella (formerly known as Skybox Imaging), as well as numerous other CubeSats and nanosats development efforts funded NSF, the Air Force, ORS and SMDC.

Aggregators such as Spaceflight Industries would also benefit of the availability of dedicated, responsive launch for their numerous customers, particularly those targeting specific orbits or mission timelines

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Fuels/Propellants
  • Launch Engine/Booster