NASA Funds R&D Projects to Improve Small Satellite Performance

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Small satellites are increasingly being used for missions in Earth orbit and deep space. Although they are easy to launch, their size limits their capabilities and usefulness to scientists. NASA has selected a pair of research and development (R&D) projects designed to address some of these limitations for continued funding under the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

The space agency selected Flight Works for a Phase II award to continue developing a high-performance, pump-fed transfer stage for Venture Class cislunar and deep space missions. The space agency also selected Nanohmics of Austin, Texas, for a SBIR Phase II award to continue working on adaptive optics for low-cost CubeSat optical systems. Each award is worth up to $750,000 over 24 months. Both companies received smaller SBIR Phase I awards.

Flight Works, which is based in Irvine, Calif., said its transfer stage is designed for use with multiple small launch vehicles.

“Flight Works is proposing to continue the development and demonstration of a low cost, compact, high performance transfer stage which enables dedicated missions to cislunar and deep space (such as Mars rendezvous) with small launchers like Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne and ABL’s RS-1. More than a stage, the system features a full set of avionics creating a bus with extensive propulsion capabilities. The avionics is based on flight-proven large CubeSat avionics from partner Astro Digital,” the project summary said.

“A stage providing over 4.3 km/s delta-V to a nanosat payload can be an enabler for many NASA lunar and interplanetary missions. These include missions similar to the NASA Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), or follow-ons to NASA’s Mars CubeSat missions MarCO-A and -B, and unlike MarCO, could enable Mars Orbit Insertion. It can also be used for NASA LEO and GEO nanosat missions, whether launched as dedicated or as secondary payloads,” the document added.

Nanohmics, which is based in Austin, Texas, is focused on improving small satellite optical systems.

“The goal of this project is to develop and demonstrate a compact, modular adaptive optics system with a beaconless wavefront sensor that advances NASA’s vision for ultra-low-cost, precision optical systems for CubeSats through the mitigation of adverse effects on imaging quality associated with cost and schedule reduction strategies in the design, manufacturing, and testing of optical components,” the proposal summary said.

“The initial target market is Earth orbit scientific research within NASA SMD, particularly Earth-imaging, astronomy, and optical communication. The ability of the AO system to improve image quality, while reducing the cost and lead time, of optical imagers and multipurpose imaging radiometers is applicable to several target observables listed in the 2017 Earth Science Decadal Survey—in particular, Surface Biology and Geology, Atmospheric Winds, and Aerosols—and those required to meet the goals of NASA’s new Earth System Observatory,” the document added.

Project summaries follow.

High Performance Pump-fed Transfer Stage for Venture Class Cislunar & Deep Space Missions
Subtopic: Small Spacecraft Transfer Stage Development

SBIR Phase II Award: up to $750,000

Flight Works, Inc.
Irvine, Calif.

Principal Investigator: Christopher Bostwick

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

Duration: 24 Months

Technical Abstract

Flight Works is proposing to continue the development and demonstration of a low cost, compact, high performance transfer stage which enables dedicated missions to cislunar and deep space (such as Mars rendezvous) with small launchers like Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne and ABL’s RS-1. More than a stage, the system features a full set of avionics creating a bus with extensive propulsion capabilities. The avionics is based on flight-proven large CubeSat avionics from partner Astro Digital.

The high performance is enabled by Flight Works’ micropump-fed propulsion technology matured over the last few years for small spacecraft combined with the high density-specific impulse (Isp) provided by the green monopropellant ASCENT. The green propellant can be stored cold to minimize heating power and a low-power pumped loop can be used to slightly warm the propellant prior to use. The result is a simple, versatile, cost-effective stage with full bus functionality and with performance capabilities similar to that of a traditional bipropellant pressure-fed stage and which can be configured for cislunar and even Mars missions.

Other benefits include scalability; use of green propellants and low-pressure tanks minimizing range safety operations and costs; high thrust for rapid, efficient transfer (compared with electric propulsion systems which have to be launched at higher orbits to avoid low altitude drag and which can require months to reach the targeted orbit while exposing the system to the damaging radiation of the Van Allen belts); minimized size provided by a high performance propulsion system; and attitude control system for long term operations.

Potential NASA Applications

A stage providing over 4.3 km/s delta-V to a nanosat payload can be an enabler for many NASA lunar and interplanetary missions. These include missions similar to the NASA Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), or follow-ons to NASA’s Mars CubeSat missions MarCO-A and -B, and unlike MarCO, could enable Mars Orbit Insertion. It can also be used for NASA LEO and GEO nanosat missions, whether launched as dedicated or as secondary payloads.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Non-NASA applications include commercial and DoD missions requiring high orbital maneuver capabilities. These include dedicated missions on small launch vehicles where additional delta-V is required, as well as commercial space-tug applications, e.g. on Falcon-9 rideshare launches. The stage can also be modified for other applications such as orbital inspectors from LEO to cislunar operations.

Adaptive Optics for Low-Cost CubeSat Optical Systems
Subtopic: Technologies to Enable Cost and Schedule Reductions for Optical System for CubeSats

SBIR Phase II Award: up to $750,000

Nanohmics, Inc.
Austin, Texas

Principal Investigator: Dr. Sebastian Liska

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

Duration: 24 Months

Technical Abstract

The goal of this project is to develop and demonstrate a compact, modular adaptive optics system with a beaconless wavefront sensor that advances NASA’s vision for ultra-low-cost, precision optical systems for CubeSats through the mitigation of adverse effects on imaging quality associated with cost and schedule reduction strategies in the design, manufacturing, and testing of optical components.

During the Phase I program, Nanohmics advanced the design and requirements for the modular AO platform through modeling and simulation. The feasibility of the approach was verified through the construction and laboratory testing of a breadboard AO system. Investigations into the optical and system-level requirements for the platform identified multiple, customizable paths for integrating the adaptive optics technology into new and existing optical systems.

During the Phase II program, Nanohmics proposes to mature software and hardware components of the modular adaptive optics platform to develop an operational system prototype by the completion of the program. Nanohmics will also design and build a 180 mm aperture, all-aluminum optical system for area scan imaging at visible and near infrared wavelengths suitable for 12-16U CubeSats and integrate it with the AO platform.

The results of laboratory and ground field testing of the imaging system under a range of environmental conditions will demonstrate and characterize the ability of the AO system to compensate for relevant optical aberrations. To advance the AO platform to a TRL of 5+, individual components and subsystems will also undergo a more rigorous set of environmental tests to qualify them for low-Earth orbit environments.

Potential NASA Applications

The initial target market is Earth orbit scientific research within NASA SMD, particularly Earth-imaging, astronomy, and optical communication. The ability of the AO system to improve image quality, while reducing the cost and lead time, of optical imagers and multipurpose imaging radiometers is applicable to several target observables listed in the 2017 Earth Science Decadal Survey—in particular, Surface Biology and Geology, Atmospheric Winds, and Aerosols—and those required to meet the goals of NASA’s new Earth System Observatory.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Passive, extended-scene plenoptic wavefront sensing and adaptive optics can be used to improve the imaging capabilities of space and airborne platforms used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, environmental studies, industrial emissions monitoring, oil and gas exploration, agriculture and forestry, and optical communication.