NASA Selects Pioneer Astronautics for 3 Small Business Awards

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Pioneer Astronautics will begin development of a magnetic sail to de-orbit satellites, a magnetic system to improve rocket engine performance in low gravity, and a gas replacement system that would allow balloons to explore other planets with the assistance of NASA funding.

The space agency selected the projects for funding under its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The awards are worth up to $125,000 for as much as six months.

The magnetic sail, or magsail, project involves the deployment of an aluminum or copper wire that would become energized with an electric current to produce a magnetic field.

“The magnetic field forces the wire into a circular loop, and creates a small magnetosphere around the spacecraft. This magnetosphere in term then creates drag against the ambient plasma surrounding the Earth, causing the spacecraft to deorbit,” the project summary said.

“Magsails using normal conductors can lower spacecraft orbits around Earth, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Titan, Uranus or Neptune. Magsails could be used to enable reusable orbit transfer vehicles or TLI stages to return to LEO without requiring either the expenditure of propellant or aerobraking,” the summary added.

“Advanced superconducting magsails could be used to deliver NASA space probes to interplanetary destinations, provide shielding against solar flares, or to decelerate very fast interstellar spacecraft without the expenditure of propellant,” the document said.

Pioneer’s Magnetic Phase Separator (MPS) is designed to improve propulsion systems in low gravity locations such as the moon and Mars.

“The Magnetic Phase Separator (MPS) orients liquid oxygen in a cryogenic tank to enable consistent single-phase liquid flow into engine feed lines in low gravity,” the proposal summary said. “The MPS integrates with propulsion systems to reduce tank slosh, prevent gas ingestion at high flow rates, and provide high expulsion efficiency.”

The third project is the Gas Replacement System (GRS), which is designed to allow balloons to explore other worlds with atmospheres.

“The Gas Replacement System (GRS) is a new technology that enables long duration flight of Super Pressure Balloons (SPBs) at nearly constant altitude. In the GRS, a storable liquid such as ammonia is carried aboard the balloon mission gondola and used to replace helium that leaks from a SPB,” the project summary said.

“Such a system could also be used with extraordinary advantage to study Venus or Mars, not only by sounding its atmosphere, but by carrying remote sensing look-down instruments such as ground penetrating radar,” the project summary added.

The summaries for three projects follow.

Magsails for Spacecraft Deorbit
Subtopic Title: DragSails for Spacecraft Deorbit

Pioneer Astronautics
Lakewood, CO

Principal Investigator
Robert Zubrin

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 1
End: 3

Technical Abstract

The magnetic sail, or magsail, is a new technology that can be used for deorbiting spacecraft. In the magsail deorbiting system, a loop of aluminum or copper wire is deployed at the end of life of an Earth orbiting spacecraft, and energized with an electric current, producing a magnetic field.

The magnetic field forces the wire into a circular loop, and creates a small magnetosphere around the spacecraft. This magnetosphere in term then creates drag against the ambient plasma surrounding the Earth, causing the spacecraft to deorbit.

For typical configurations, the magsail wire mass required to create a drag area of a given size is two orders of magnitude less than that needed using solar sail or any other physical material.

In addition to being a uniquely advantageous technology for LEO spacecraft deorbiting, the normal-conducting magsail can serve as a precursor technology to superconducting magsails capable of generating sufficient field to effectively propel interplanetary spacecraft using the momentum flux of the solar wind.

In the proposed program, the potential performance of the magsail deorbiting system will be analyzed, design options compared, deployment and operation simulated, and the concept validated by means of computer analysis and laboratory tests. 

Potential NASA Applications

Magsails using normal conductors can lower spacecraft orbits around Earth, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Titan, Uranus or Neptune. Magsails could be used to enable reusable orbit transfer vehicles or TLI stages to return to LEO without requiring either the expenditure of propellant or aerobraking. 

Advanced superconducting magsails could be used to deliver NASA space probes to interplanetary destinations, provide shielding against solar flares, or to decelerate very fast interstellar spacecraft without the expenditure of propellant.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Magsails using normal conductors can be used to create drag against Earth’s ionosphere, enabling the deorbiting of commercial and military satellites with a very low mass system. Magsails could be used to deorbit GTO stages or enable reusable orbit transfer vehicles to return to LEO without requiring either the expenditure of propellant or aerobraking. 

Duration: 3 month

Magnetic Phase Separator
Subtopic Title: Cryogenic Fluid Management

Pioneer Astronautics
Lakewood, CO

Principal Investigator
Stacy Carrera

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

The Magnetic Phase Separator (MPS) orients liquid oxygen in a cryogenic tank to enable consistent single-phase liquid flow into engine feed lines in low gravity. The MPS integrates with propulsion systems to reduce tank slosh, prevent gas ingestion at high flow rates, and provide high expulsion efficiency.

The paramagnetic properties of liquid oxygen (LOx) enable a series of strong permanent magnets or electromagnets to control the position of the liquid, allowing withdrawal in microgravity of gaseous or liquid products from their respective ports.

Although magnetic propellant orientation methods have been proposed and investigated for cryogenic oxygen and hydrogen delivery in microgravity before, the MPS applies recent trends in high-strength permanent magnets, modeling, and a novel centrifuge test platform to facilitate the configuration and refinement of magnet geometry and controls over long test periods.

The proposed test platform enables the use of LOx rather than non-cryogenic ferro-fluids that have been used in previous short-duration, microgravity aircraft paramagnetic orientation experiments.

Pioneer Astronautics will seek to demonstrate the feasibility of a magnetic control system for liquid oxygen through experiments progressing from ferromagnetic fluids to LOx on the bench and then on a centrifuge test stand.

A parallel modeling effort will be undertaken to enhance and help guide the testing effort. Experiments will seek to accurately quantify the magnitude of the force exerted by a magnetic field on liquid oxygen so that requirements for delivery of specific flow rates of cryogen can be established under defined levels of void fractions, consistent with the solicitation requirements to achieve 10 gallons per minute flow rate at void fractions up to 30 percent.

Potential NASA Applications

The primary initial application of the Magnetic Phase Separator (MPS) is for NASA in support of space exploration. The MPS development is aimed toward integration in a cryogenic LOx delivery system for advanced propulsion.

In addition, successful implementation of MPS for liquid oxygen handling has potential application to larger propellant systems including liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen as well as the smaller scale life-support systems.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

As commercial space flight advances, the MPS has potential applications for propulsion and life support related to privately funded ventures. A successful MPS may also have potential application as an alternative terrestrial LOx transfer method. Techniques developed during MPS might also be applied to generation of forces to replace mechanical components in actuators, pumps, and other hardware.

Duration: 6 months

Gas Replacement System (GRS)
Subtopic Title: Terrestrial Balloons and Planetary Aerial Vehicles

Pioneer Astronautics
Lakewood, CO

Principal Investigator
Mark Berggren

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 1
End: 3

Technical Abstract

 The Gas Replacement System (GRS) is a new technology that enables long duration flight of Super Pressure Balloons (SPBs) at nearly constant altitude. In the GRS, a storable liquid such as ammonia is carried aboard the balloon mission gondola and used to replace helium that leaks from a SPB.

The ammonia can be used directly as a helium replacement gas, or it can be dissociated into a very low molecular weight nitrogen/hydrogen mix. In either case, the balloon remains fully inflated, and remains floating at nearly constant altitude.

The advantage of using a storable liquid in this way, rather than as ballast, is that consumable mass is greatly reduced, being cut by a factor of 1.7 in the simple (S) non-dissociation system and 3.4 in the (D) dissociation system.

Moreover, in a ballast system the floating mass of the balloon changes by the sum of the ballast and the leaked helium, whereas in the GRS the only the leaked helium is lost. Thus the floating mass of the system remains almost constant, with near constant cruise altitude being maintained as a result,

Indeed, using the GRS the altitude excursion for compensating for a given amount of helium leakage being reduced by a factor of 8 compared to a ballast-dropping alternative.

The GRS is a simple low-mass system requiring very low power. In the proposed program, the potential performance of the GRS will be analyzed, design options compared, designs developed and built for both S and D type units, and the concept validated by means of lab tests of GRS prototypes.

Potential NASA Applications

The primary purpose of the GRS is to enable SPB systems that can fly or long durations in the Earth’s stratosphere at near constant altitude, without need to drop ballast or provide replacement gas. By lengthening the duration of such missions, the science return and overall cost-effectiveness of the program can be multiplied accordingly.

Such a system could also be used with extraordinary advantage to study Venus or Mars, not only by sounding its atmosphere, but by carrying remote sensing look-down instruments such as ground penetrating radar.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

There are many commercial applications possible for GRS technology derived systems. SPBs are much cheaper than satellites, and flying at altitudes approaching 40 km, could enable remote sensing, cell phone, internet, and other forms of communications coverage over vast regions of the Earth, including Africa, Asia, and the world’s oceans. 

Duration: 6 months