Altius Space Machines Selected for 2 NASA SBIR Phase 1 Awards

Altius Small Machines will develop systems that will allow for orbiting satellites to be upgraded and for planetary science missions to changes the tools they are using with the help of NASA funding.

The space agency selected the Colorado-based company for two awards under its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 program. Each contract is worth up to $125,000 over 13 months.

One project involves MagTags, which are modular interfaces that use “solid state switchable magnets and ferrous target materials to create a secure electrical or low-pressure fluid connection between modules and spacecraft with no moving parts,” according to the proposal summary.

“The proposed innovation allows for simplified repair and upgrade of NASA and commercial on orbit long duration assets by using MagTag-equipped plug-and-play modules such as batteries or reaction wheel systems,” the summary added. “As currently envisioned MagTags fit within a 60mm x 60mm x 25mm volume making them compatible for use on cubesats and smallsats.”

The other selected proposal will allow Altius to begin development of a dust-tolerant electropermanent magnetic (EPM) tool interface for use on planetary landers and rovers.

“While space robots for satellite servicing have embraced the use of robotic tool changers, planetary science robotics systems have historically avoided the use of tool changers, because traditional tool changers use complex mechanical latching mechanisms with many exposed moving parts, which are often mechanically unreliable in dusty environments,” the proposal summary stated.

The system will have “no externally exposed moving parts. This proposed EPM Tool Changer concept uses a solid state switchable magnetic latching system to hold the tool to the tool changer, and non-contact power and data transmission,” the document added.

Summaries of the two selected projects follow.


Proposal Title:
MagTag Modular Interfaces for Palletized Subsystems and Satellites

Subtopic Title:
In-Space Sub-Modular Assembly

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

Principal Investigator
Joshua Nelson

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 2
End: 5

Technical Abstract

MagTags™ are a modular interface solution utilizing solid state switchable magnets and ferrous target materials to create a secure electrical or low-pressure fluid connection between modules and spacecraft with no moving parts. This switchable electropermanent magnet (EPM) requires no holding power, providing benefits over both standard permanent magnets and electromagnets.

The proposed innovation allows for simplified repair and upgrade of NASA and commercial on orbit long duration assets by using MagTag-equipped plug-and-play modules such as batteries or reaction wheel systems. As currently envisioned MagTags fit within a 60mm x 60mm x 25mm volume making them compatible for use on cubesats and smallsats.

During the proposed Phase I effort, Altius will develop requirements for the MagTag, review the requirements and the resulting MagTag conceptual design at a workshop at the Small Satellite Conference, and then using feedback from that workshop, Altius will design, build, and test several brassboard prototypes of the MagTag Electrical interface, raising the system from a TRL 2 to a TRL 5.

In Phase II Altius proposes doing detailed flight design, analysis, and space environment qualification testing of the MagTags, working with a satellite component provider to develop at least one representative MagTag-equipped module, and developing a preliminary design and prototype of a pallet for carrying multiple MagTag-equipped modules on Altius’s BullDog™ satellite servicing vehicle. This will raise the MagTag TRL to 6 by the end of Phase II, with the potential to reach TRL 9 via flight demonstration subsequently.

Potential NASA Applications

NASA Applications include:

  • Power/Data modular interfaces for servicing (expansion, repairs, or upgrades) future NASA satellites and space facilities.
  • Internal and external power/data interfaces for payloads and robot mounting for space facilities like the proposed LOP-G.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The main potential non-NASA applications for MagTags are:

  • Modular interfaces for expansion, repair, or upgrade of cubesats, microsats, larger spacecraft, and persistent space platforms and other in-space assembled structures.
  • Internal and external power/data interfaces for payloads and robot mounting for future commercial space facilities.

Proposal Title:
Dust Tolerant Electropermanent Magnetic Tool Interface

Subtopic Title:
Robotic Mobility, Manipulation and Sampling

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

Principal Investigator (Name, E-mail, Mail Address, City/State/Zip, Phone)
Joshua Nelson

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

For many years industrial robots have benefited from the availability of automatic tool changers, allowing one robot to perform a much wider range of tasks than could be performed otherwise. While space robots for satellite servicing have embraced the use of robotic tool changers, planetary science robotics systems have historically avoided the use of tool changers, because traditional tool changers use complex mechanical latching mechanisms with many exposed moving parts, which are often mechanically unreliable in dusty environments.

To solve these problems, and enable planetary science missions to switch from using massive, complex, and bulky multi-tool turret designs, Altius proposes the development of an Electropermanent Magnetic Tool Changer, which has no externally exposed moving parts. This proposed EPM Tool Changer concept uses a solid state switchable magnetic latching system to hold the tool to the tool changer, and non-contact power and data transmission. And while it is not in the scope of the proposed Phase I/II effort, this tool changer design can also enable the use of a contactless mechanical tool-drive coupling system, enabling mechanical tool drive without exposed moving parts on either side of the interface.

During Phase I, Altius will work with NASA planetary science robotics teams to identify and document system requirements, and then Altius will design, build, and prototype the magnetic connection system and the wireless power/data transfer systems.

This testing, which will include preliminary dusty environment testing will raise the TRL of the power/data version of the EPM tool changer from TRL 2 to TRL 4, enabling a flight-grade prototype of the power/data EPM Tool Changer to be designed, built, and qualified during Phase II, raising the system to TRL 6, where it is mature enough to be integrated into future NASA and commercial missions.

Potential NASA Applications

  • Enabling NASA science missions by reducing the size and complexity of robotic manipulators and allowing for analysis and sampling of areas that would be impossible to reach with a traditional multi-tool turret design.
  • Enabling lighter-weight robotic tool changers for LEO and GEO satellite servicing applications.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • Increasing the adaptability of bomb disposal or search and rescue robots that operate in dusty environments
  • Enabling hazardous location robotic manipulation such as nuclear reactor cleanup efforts where the hazards require the use of tele-robotics and requires specialized tools and multiple end-effectors.
  • Enabling non-hazardous robotic manipulation in dirty or greasy environments.