NASA Selects CubeSat Projects for SBIR Phase II Funding

NASA’s STMD is spearheading work on small spacecraft such as these two Nodes satellites. The Nodes spacecraft were taken to the International Space Station (ISS) in late 2015 via the fourth Orbital ATK cargo mission. Nodes will be deployed into low-Earth orbit from the ISS in early 2016 and test new network capabilities for operating swarms of spacecraft in the future. (Credit: NASA)
NASA’s STMD is spearheading work on small spacecraft such as these two Nodes satellites. The Nodes spacecraft were taken to the International Space Station (ISS) in late 2015 via the fourth Orbital ATK cargo mission. Nodes will be deployed into low-Earth orbit from the ISS in early 2016 and test new network capabilities for operating swarms of spacecraft in the future. (Credit: NASA)

NASA has selected seven projects focused on CubeSats for continued development under the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II program.

The projects are either focused directly on CubeSats or have applications to the small satellites. The list includes:

  • Tendeg, LLC, Louisville, Colo: ROC-Rib Deployable Ka-Band Antenna for Nanosatellites
  • ExoTerra Resource, LLC. Littleton, Colo.: Cubesat SEP Power Module
  • Composite Technology Development, Inc., Lafayette, Colo.: Electric Potential and Field Instrument for CubeSat (EPIC)
  • Spectral Sciences, Inc., Burlington, Mass.: Electrospray Propulsion Engineering Toolkit (ESPET)
  • , LLC, Saline, Mich.:  Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing for Capillary Heat Transfer Devices and Integrated Heat Exchangers
  • Applied Material Systems Engineering, Inc., Schaumburg, Ill.: Innovations for the Affordable Conductive Thermal Control Material Systems for Space Applications
  • Pioneer Astronautics, Lakewood, Colo.: Nitrous Ethane-Ethylene Rocket with Hypergolic Ignition.

Summaries of the projects follow.

NASA SBIR PHASE II AWARDS

Tendeg, LLC
Louisville, CO

Proposal Title: ROC-Rib Deployable Ka-Band Antenna for Nanosatellites
Subtopic Title: Microwave Technologies for Remote Sensing

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Gregg Freebury

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 6

Technical Abstract

In these days of tight budgets and limited funding, NASA is constantly looking for new ways to reduce development time and costs of future spacecraft. This is the driving spirit behind NASA’s increasing interest in the CubeSat platform, and the vision that is guiding development and demonstration of higher-risk technologies that can eventually lead to low-cost atmospheric science from CubeSats. For example, a tantalizing next-generation CubeSat system would combine a high-gain deployable antenna with a high-frequency Ka-band transponder to support very high bandwidth communications on the order of 10s of Mbps and/or very high-resolution radiometric remote sensing of atmospheric phenomenon. To address this need, Tendeg proposes to develop a Ka-band deployable mesh antenna that can package within a 3U CubeSat volume and deploy to diameters of 0.8-1.5m. The antenna employs a backing structure that is a hybrid wrap-rib/perimeter-truss design. A net supports a reflective mesh while the entire assembly provides the structural depth and surface accuracy needed for Ka-band operation.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The primary NASA target application for the proposed deployable antenna technology is future NASA CubeSat and SmallSat spacecraft for which communications up/downlink or passive RF remote sensing measurement resolution is a major bottleneck in the system design. In particular, the proposed technology will enable very high bandwidth communications on the order of 10s of Mbps and/or very high-resolution radiometric remote sensing of atmospheric phenomenon.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Beyond NASA applications, the proposed deployable antenna technology could see use in other military and commercial applications where data up/downlink or passive RF sensing is also a considerable need. Terrestrial-based applications might include portable military and commercial communication networks that desire Ka-band operations and can benefit from lightweight, man-portable and deployable high-gain apertures.

ExoTerra Resource, LLC
Littleton, CO

Proposal Title: Cubesat SEP Power Module
Subtopic Title: Small Spacecraft in Deep Space: Power, Navigation, and Structures

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Michael VanWoerkom

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 4
End: 7

Technical Abstract

As electronics continue to shrink, the capabilities of CubeSats continue to expand. This offers the possibility of entirely new mission classes for space exploration. However, CubeSats small surface area limits their power availability. Typical CubeSat arrays are

To resolve these issues, ExoTerra has developed a CubeSat Solar Electric Propulsion Power Module. The module incorporates a lightweight deployable solar array with up to 296 W (BOL) of power. The module efficiently delivers the power to a micro Hall Effect Thruster at nearly 300 V via a direct drive power distribution card. The specific power of over 140 W/kg and power density of over .17 W/cm3 efficiently packages the module into a 6U CubeSat. When not needed for electric propulsion, the card steps the voltage down to either 28 or 12 V to deliver high power for either instrument or telecommunications use.

ExoTerra builds on the Phase I prototype and functional testing effort by building a qualification unit of the array and direct drive electronics in Phase II. During the period of performance, we initiate functional and environmental testing to push towards commercializing the technology.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The technology enables multiple NASA mission opportunities. CubeSats offer the potential for low cost exploration throughout the inner solar system. With the higher power availability, CubeSat missions can power high deltaV Electric Propulsion to perform interplanetary trajectories. Once at the target, the arrays enable high power instruments such as lidar for imaging and long range telecommunications to send the data back. The lightweight arrays also enable CubeSat missions to be conducted further from the sun in low flux regions such as near earth asteroids and even Mars.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The high power arrays have multiple commercial applications as well. CubeSats have the potential to replace large monolithic satellites with constellations of microsatellites. The high specific power benefits CubeSats and Microsats generically through reduced weight and launch volume. This capability can enable the use of higher power payloads or telecommunications. The arrays also form the foundation of a CubeSat SEP module that can provide high dV rideshare compatible propulsion for the first time. This enables CubeSats to alter their trajectory from their drop-off orbit and maintain their ideal orbit once they arrive for coordinated constellations.

Composite Technology Development, Inc.
Lafayette, CO

Proposal Title: Electric Potential and Field Instrument for CubeSat (EPIC)
Subtopic Title: Particles and Field Sensors and Instrument Enabling Technologies

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dana Turse
Lafayette, CO

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 6

Technical Abstract

Our present understanding of magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling is limited, partly due to the lack of broad statistical observations of the 3-dimensional (3D) electric field in the altitude region between 300 and 1000km. This understanding is of national importance because it is a necessary step toward developing the ability to measure and forecast the “space weather” that affects modern technology. The high cost of space access and short satellite lifetimes below 500 km make traditional satellites uneconomical for performing these measurements. Therefore, it is desirable to develop smaller and lower-cost sensor/satellite systems, such as CubeSats, so that the largest possible number of distributed measurements can be economically made in this region. The proposed project seeks to develop a 3D vector electric field instrument that can be accommodated in less than half of a 6U (10x20x30 cm) CubeSat. This instrument is enabled by CTD’s game changing deployable composite boom technology that provides lightweight, stiff, straight, and thermally stable booms capable of being stowed within a CubeSat form factor. The proposed development will also provide the CubeSat community with the capability to include one or more deployable booms with lengths greater than 5 meters for future CubeSat missions.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The proposed CubeSat E-field instrument will enable multipoint e-field measurements to be made economically in the region between 300 and 1000km. This is relevant to the scientific goals outlined in the 2013-2022 decadal survey in solar and space physics, as stated: “Determine the dynamics and coupling of the earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere and atmosphere and their response to solar and terrestrial inputs.” It is also relevant to the NASA 2009 Heliophysics Roadmap, as outlined in the living with a star science queue: “Dynamic Geospace Coupling: Understand how magnetospheric dynamics provide energy into the coupled ionosphere-magnetosphere system.” In addition, the proposed boom technology can be used for magnetometers, particle sensors, gravity gradient stabilization for small spacecraft, or for deploying solar sails, solar arrays and phased array antennas.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The U.S. military has increasing interest in utilizing low-cost spacecraft platforms that can be rapidly launched for the purposes of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and space weather monitoring. The proposed instrument would have applicability for missions similar to the Air Force’s Communications/Navigation Outage Forecasting System (C/NOFS), which allows the U.S. military to predict the effects of ionospheric activity on signals from communication and navigation satellites, outages of which could potentially cause problems in battlefield situations. In addition, both military and commercial satellites could use gravity gradient booms, instrument booms, optical and antenna reflectors, sunshades, deorbiting systems, solar arrays, phased arrays, and solar sails based on this deployment technology.

Spectral Sciences, Inc.
Burlington, MA

Proposal Title: Electrospray Propulsion Engineering Toolkit (ESPET)
Subtopic Title: Modeling and Measurements for Propulsion and Power

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Rainer A Dressler

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

To accelerate the development of scaled-up Electrospray Propulsion emitter array systems with practical thrust levels, Spectral Sciences, Inc. (SSI), in collaboration with Busek Co. Inc., and CFD Research Corporation, proposes the development of an Electrospray Propulsion Engineering Toolkit (ESPET). The innovation is a multi-scale engineering tool that extends experimental and detailed high-level physics characterization of microfluidic components to full-scale ESP microfluidic network performance. The innovation includes a central database of critical microfluidic properties. It is designed to allow ESP system engineers to efficiently narrow down the system component trade space and thereby substantially reduce the development time of advanced ESP systems. ESPET takes an engineering model approach that breaks the ESP system down into multiple microfluidic components or domains that can be described by analytical microfluidic solutions and specific parameters of the domain. Phase I was a successful proof of concept on the microfluidics of the Busek 100 micro class ESP system. In Phase II, full development of ESPET for arbitrary ESP designs will occur. The Phase II Work Plan includes construction of a microfluidics properties database, the development of the domain models and network solver, and the testing and validation against data produced by current ESP system developers.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

For NASA to gain high-value science from SmallSat technology requires lightweight, miniaturized, precision impulse bit, fuel efficient propulsion systems that extend mission time and greatly enhance SmallSat utility. While a broad range of chemical and EP systems are under consideration for SmallSat thrusters, micro-fabricated electrospray (ESP) arrays have been clearly identified as an emerging technology for efficient and high precision propulsion systems, with scalability that also makes them attractive for applications on larger spacecraft. ESPET will accelerate the development of ESP systems that meet NASA requirements. ESPET will provide NASA with a tool for quick comparison of various fuels and thruster configurations. It will provide designers with estimates of thruster fuel and power efficiency, stability of output thrust, and potential for contamination effects. It will also enable them to develop accurate thruster control systems.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

SmallSat technology is bringing the space vehicle deployment cost within reach of a much larger market including small commercial enterprises like Cosmogia Inc., Dove-2 remote sensing mission for NOAA, research and educational initiatives like University of Florida’s SwampSat demonstrator, and developing countries without a major space program, such as Poland’s BRITE-PL for celestial observations. As the ESP technology becomes more generally available and new applications are envisioned, engineering software tools like ESPET will be essential to tailoring the thruster design to mission requirements. ESPET may also be extended to microfluidic system designs of miniaturized electrospray ionization sources for portable mass spectrometers.

Sheridan Solutions, LLC
Saline, MI

Proposal Title: Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing for Capillary Heat Transfer Devices and Integrated Heat Exchangers
Subtopic Title: Thermal Control Systems

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
John Sheridan

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

Technical Abstract

This Phase II development program will utilize a novel new 3D printing process to produce high performance heat exchangers embedded in CubeSat structures with integrated temperature monitoring sensors. The embedded heat exchanger is part of a multifunctional three dimensional CubeSat structure that will simultaneously accommodate thermal and mechanical loads, and offer radiation protection via multi-material laminates. In particular, Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing will be used to embed complex cooling channels in a three dimensional part.

Success in this program enables low cost production of CubeSat structures with both thermal management and structural integrity excellence. These structures can be applied in low earth orbit devices, where thermal management of small satellites is a principal concern, and also in deep space applications, where radiation shielding is a major problem.

The results of this enabling work will provide the engineering design and programmatic information necessary for implementation into a number of NASA space programs, including the planned mission to Europa.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Embedding three-dimensional heat exchangers as part of a multi-functional structure directly addresses the top priority goal described in the 2015 NASA Technology Roadmap TA12: Materials, Structures, Mechanical Systems, and Manufacturing. That top level goal is to: Develop materials to increase multi-functionality and reduce mass and cost (radiation protection/mass reduction challenges). Provide innovative designs and tools for robustness and superior structural integrity for deep space and science missions (reliability/ mass reduction challenges). Design and develop robust, long-life mechanisms capable of performing in the harsh environments (reliability challenge). Advance new processes and model-based manufacturing capabilities for more affordable and higher performance products (mass reduction/affordability challenge).

Cube Sat components will have very small masses, and their temperatures are highly sensitive to variations in the component power output and spacecraft environmental temperature. The advanced thermal devices developed here will be capable of maintaining components within their specified temperature ranges, with excellent reliability of single piece structures, while concurrently minimizing added weight.

The technology being developed in this effort directly addresses the two overarching themes of NASA’s technology plan, critical attributes and technology themes required by every mission architecture: multifunctional and lightweight.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

This program produces high performance heat exchangers embedded in structures with integrated temperature monitoring sensors. The embedded heat exchanger is part of a multifunctional three dimensional structure that will simultaneously accommodate thermal and mechanical loads, and offer radiation protection via multi-material laminates.

Non-NASA commercial application of this technology has started with aerospace and defense companies who are already customers. These firms are early adopters of additive manufacturing because it enables lightweight designs and the production of parts with complex geometries. Additionally, aerospace and defense manufacturers frequently incorporate high value materials, and additive manufacturing allows them to maintain fine control of material properties and reduce raw material waste.

There are very few additive approaches for fabricating metallic load-bearing structure with embedded multi-functional capability. Traditional fusion based welding and/or thermomechanical processes used for fabricating metallic structure would destroy delicate instruments. The solid-state nature of UAM is unique in that it preserves the strength of aerospace aluminum alloys, permits structures with dissimilar materials, and allows sensitive sensors, such as thermocouples, to be placed inside of metallic structure.

Applied Material Systems Engineering, Inc.
Schaumburg, IL

Proposal Title: Innovations for the Affordable Conductive Thermal Control Material Systems for Space Applications
Subtopic Title: Thermal Control Systems

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mukund Deshpande

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 6

Technical Abstract

This proposal is submitted to develop and validate the innovative concept for the affordable conductive thermal control material systems that are proven feasible during phase I efforts. The reproducibility and optimization of the material processing, the space environment stability, of the affordable multifunctional thermal control material system (TCMS) that can be applied to space hardware and can enables the hardware to carry higher leakage current are planned to receive attention in phase II study. The suggested efforts emphasize developments in two material science areas: the first one considers the development of intercalated boron nitride nano structure that includes nanotubes and nano mesh and the second area proposes the synthesis and processing of various compounds with proton and electron conductivity along with its plasma sprayable versions. The matured material system that integrates these technology aspects can allow higher leakage currents at affordable costs. Thus the envisioned affordable material systems validation efforts can provide the needed reliable TCMS in typical space environments in (LEO), (GEO) & beyond. The reliability goal for the affordable conductive TCMS are: a design life of > 10 years in LEO and > 15 years in GEO, and we anticipate the developments to mature by end of phase II ready for the hardware demonstration.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The Phase II can have greatest impact on the NASA missions that need white (low aS/eT) conductive TCMS coatings with needed current carrying capability. The candidate missions that can benefit from this technology uniquely are: Cube Sats Program, W-FIRST, DAVINCI, PACE, LANDSAT 9. It may also provide unique benefits to future missions like Europa and Mars 2020. Its affordable contributions to Cube Sat program can be timely and significant.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The DOD and Commercial missions need products that can benefit from this technology uniquely are:

DOD Cube Sats Program for High Radiation Environments, Survivable Second surface mirrors and TCMS that meet NRO hardening goals. Its affordable contributions to DOD and Commercial Cube Sat program can be timely and significant.

Pioneer Astronautics
Lakewood, CO

Proposal Title: Nitrous Ethane-Ethylene Rocket with Hypergolic Ignition
Subtopic Title: Propulsion Systems for Robotic Science Missions

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Robert Zubrin

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

Technical Abstract

The Nitrous Ethane-Ethylene Rocket with Hypergolic Ignition (NEERHI) engine is a proposed technology designed to provide small spacecraft with non-toxic, non-cryogenic, high performance, hypergolic propulsion. When passed over a warm catalyst bed, gaseous nitrous oxide and an ethylene-ethane gaseous blend combust instantly. A small 1 N thruster can be designed to provide small satellite propulsion systems with a specific impulse of approximately 300 seconds. Both propellants are self-pressurizing, capable of delivering feed line pressures in excess of 800 psi at room temperature, and 400 psi if cooled to 0 C. For longer duration missions, both nitrous oxide and an ethane-ethylene fuel blend do not require thermal heating to maintain a liquid state, and as such, can be stored on Earth or in space for in-definite periods of time with no parasitic power drain required to maintain a liquid propellant. Compared to other available chemical propulsion systems, a NEERHI system offers a cost effective solution as other hypergolic engines use hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide which are toxic and dangerous to handle, increasing ground costs. As an added capability, the NEERHI engine has the ability to operate as a monopropellant engine if the catalyst be is heated with a bipropellant reaction, increasing the lifetime of the catalyst bed and reducing heating loads on the engine. The fuel and oxidizer have nearly identical vapor pressure curves, allowing them to be stored in compact common-bulkhead tanks.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

A NEERHI system is capable of replacing any monopropellant or bipropellant space propulsion system currently used by NASA with a green propellant, self-pressurizing, cold-storable, hypergolic rocket system. The recent MAVEN mission, which uses a propulsion system based off of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, uses a total of 20 hydrazine monopropellant thrusters. A NEERHI system could be adapted to future missions to provide a greater specific impulse with a much lower ground cost due to the low toxicity of the propellants. Future lunar missions, which have historically used an NTO and MMH propellant engine, could use a NEERHI system to not only provide RCS thrust, but the nitrous oxide can also be used to produce a breathable atmosphere for any manned mission. The current technology roadmap for NASA also features a main propulsion unit for the micro-satellite, which could employ a NEERHI engine to provide delta-V maneuvers, station keeping, and even Earth-escape missions. Almost all satellite systems that don’t have ion RCS systems could greatly benefit from the integration of a NEERHI unit to reduce the launch cost of the system.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

A NEERHI system can be used on any commercial satellite system that requires a simple, hypergolic, RCS propulsion unit but wishes to avoid the difficulties encountered when working with a nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine system. The NEERHI can be used in the emerging cubesat industry, were the primary development teams are university students designing their first space system. A NEERHI engine would provide a safe and affordable system for universities that often have rigorous safety standards, and as such, avoid current hydrazine-based propulsion. In the new field of commercial crew development efforts, the SpaceX capsule currently uses the Draco rocket engine to provide attitude control. The Draco uses an MMH and NTO propellant combination. A NEERHI system could be built to replace these thrusters, and with a supply of Nitrous oxide onboard, future Dragon spacecraft could use the nitrous to produce breathing air instead of bringing along an additional system, taking up mass and space on the craft. A hypergolic and green propellant is the solution sought by all companies to phasing out the use of the dangerous hydrazine-based thrusters, and the NEERHI program could revolutionize the market.