Altius Space Machines Selected for Two NASA SBIR Phase II Awards

Altius Space Machines will continue to magnetic interface systems for use in satellite servicing and robotic landers under a pair of grants from NASA.

The space agency selected the Broomfiled, Colo.-based company for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II awards. Each award is worth up to $750,000 over a two-year period.

“Altius has developed an electropermanent-magnetically coupled electrical and/or fluid connection “MagTag™” interface that is robust and lightweight,” the company said in a proposal summary.

“Given the large number of LEO constellations in development, such modular interfaces provide a low-cost way of restoring degraded functionality, enabling constellation operators to extend the productive lifetime of their satellites (e.g. plug-and-play modules for replacement batteries, reaction wheels, etc),” the proposal added. “This eliminates the need to de-orbit and replace satellites which otherwise may be completely functional.”

Altius said MagTags could be used as interfaces for the in-space assembly of space telescopes, habitats and NASA’s planned lunar gateway. They could also be used on a variety of Earth-orbiting satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles.

NASA also selected Altius’ dust tolerant electropermanent magnetic tool interface for a SBIR Phase II award.

“The current state-of-the-art used on robotic landers relies on large, bulky, and monolithic instrumentation turrets, consuming a significant proportion of mass budget which is tightly constrained for extraterrestrial missions such as Mars,” the company’s proposal summary states.

“Altius Space Machines has developed a novel electropermanent magnet (EPM) gripping technology that can be integrated into a modular, dust-tolerant end-effector or tool-changer assembly,” the summary added. “These switchable magnets unlock a significant new design envelope and offer numerous advantages over mechanical connectors.”

In addition to space vehicles, the company said the technology could be used as tool changes in the mining, oil, gas, food service and underwater remotely operated vehicles industries.

Summaries of the two projects follow.

Altius Space Machines, Inc.
Broomfield, Colo.

MagTag Modular Interfaces for Palletized Subsystems and Satellites
Subtopic: In-Space Sub-Modular Assembly

Principal Investigator
Geoffrey Licciardello

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 5
End: 7

Technical Abstract

To enable serviceable satellites and persistent orbital platforms, the need exists for simple, robust and lightweight modular interfaces. Such interfaces allow for a variety of functions to be upgraded at low-cost using affordable commercial satellite servicing vehicles. Given the large number of LEO constellations in development, such modular interfaces provide a low-cost way of restoring degraded functionality, enabling constellation operators to extend the productive lifetime of their satellites (e.g. plug-and-play modules for replacement batteries, reaction wheels, etc). This eliminates the need to de-orbit and replace satellites which otherwise may be completely functional.

Altius has developed an electropermanent-magnetically coupled electrical and/or fluid connection “MagTag™” interface that is robust and lightweight. The proposed MagTag interface provides the following benefits:

  • Robust: Electropermanent magnets (EPMs) offer a bi-stable latching mechanical connection with no moving parts. Magnetic coupling reduces strain due to thermal conditions at the interface boundary
  • Latching: EPMs only require power to change gripping states from on-to-off, they can hold an attached payload indefinitely without consuming power.
  • Lightweight: Without heavy mechanical connections, the overall interface can be produced within a small footprint saving on mass and volume.
  • Low-Profile: Each interface half can fit within an approximately 7.5 x 7.5 x 2 cm envelope.
  • Reconfigurable: Allows for a highly configurable interface suited to a wide array of general customer needs and allows for development of specialized interfaces for specific payloads and sub assemblies.
  • Scalable: Usable for full subassembly interfaces to satellites or component level interfaces to larger subassemblies. The general concept can be scaled up to support larger modules.

These interfaces will allow for enhanced serviceability and upgradability of future space assets for NASA, DoD, and commercial interests.

Potential NASA Applications

The MagTag offers a highly modular, lightweight, and capable interface that is suited for the following NASA applications:

  • A sub-module interface for in-Space Assembly (iSA) of space telescopes, habitats, or other persistent space platforms
  • An IVR/EVR interface for the Lunar Gateway and future orbital constructions
  • A modular upgrade / maintenance / repair interface for habitats
  • A life-extension and capability enabler for upgrade / maintenance / repair of future earth science satellites

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • Dual-use cubesat/smallsat deployer interfaces that leave behind servicing ports
  • Swappable hosted-payload ports for condosats, commercial LEO stations and LEO constellations
  • Upgrade/repair ports for larger LEO/MEO/GEO satellites
  • Sensor or droppable payload interfaces for UAVs
  • End-effector interfaces for robotic manipulators for satellite servicing and in-Space Assembly (iSA)

Duration: 24 months


Dust Tolerant Electropermanent Magnetic Tool Interface
Subtopic: Robotic Mobility, Manipulation and Sampling

Principal Investigator
Keith Drake

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 4
End: 5

Technical Abstract

With the advancement of ever more capable robotic exploration of extraterrestrial bodies comes the need for low-power, low mass, and robust in-situ tools and manipulators. The current state-of-the-art used on robotic landers relies on large, bulky, and monolithic instrumentation turrets, consuming a significant proportion of mass budget which is tightly constrained for extraterrestrial missions such as Mars.

Altius Space Machines has developed a novel electropermanent magnet (EPM) gripping technology that can be integrated into a modular, dust-tolerant end-effector or tool-changer assembly. These switchable magnets unlock a significant new design envelope and offer numerous advantages over mechanical connectors, including:

  • Dust-Tolerant Hermetic Design: EPM mating surfaces require no exposed moving electrical or mechanical parts on either side of the interface
  • High Reliability: The EPM Tool Changer has dramatically fewer moving parts than traditional mechanical tool changers, eliminating many potential failure modes
  • Low Actuation Power: The EPM magnetic latching system only consumers power (<5W) when the magnet is switching states, enabling indefinite holding without requiring additional power
  • Lightweight/Compact: With no need for complex mechanical latching systems, the proposed tool changer can be dramatically lighter and simpler than traditional mechanical solutions
  • Tight Reach Capability: The compact EPM tool changer enables insertion of sampling tools or sensors into much tighter geometric areas than would be possible with a turret or mechanical tool changer design
  • Built-in Mechanical Fusing: Because the connection force is provided magnetically, it is possible to design the tool changer such that if a specified torque or force limit is exceeded, the tool separates non-catastrophically from the tool changer, without damaging the robot arm

Phase I efforts have produced a TRL 4 tool-changer demonstrator, and the technology is ready for more advanced development.

Potential NASA Applications

Altius’ EPM Tool-changer is best suited for use on robotic extraterrestrial missions, where a complex and heavy instrumentation turret can be replaced with a modular tool end-effector. This includes:

  • Lunar landers and rovers, including missions under the CLPS plan
  • Future Mars rovers, including Mars Sample Return missions
  • Rovers or landers designed for other dusty planetary and asteroidal bodies

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Several terrestrial applications exist for Altius’ EPM tool changer, including:

  • Dirty environment robotic tool changers, such as mining, oil & gas, or food service automation
  • Tool changer for underwater ROVs
  • Tool changer for robotic manipulators on commercial lunar landers or rovers
  • Tool changer for in-Space Assembly (iSA), manufacturing, or servicing spacecraft