Vector Selected for NASA SBIR Award

NASA has selected Vector Launch company for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II award to demonstrate a micropump-based stage pressurization system. The two-year contract is worth up to $750,000.

“Electrically-driven micropumps drive a small portion of each propellant over a novel 3D-printed heat exchanger at the engine to pressurize the tanks. Excess flow can be diverted to the engine as needed,” the company said in its proposal.

“This approach reduces system mass, complexity and acquisition cost as well as operational costs,” the proposal added. “It eliminates the need for all high-pressure tanks and associated components.”

The company plans to use the pressurization system in its Vector-R small satellite launcher.  The system could be used with high vapor pressure propellants such as LOX/methane or LOX/propane.

“As such, it is an enabler for missions targeted to use in-situ propellants since the need for a separate pressurant like helium is either greatly reduced or eliminated,” the application stated.

“Longer-term potential applications include future missions to Mars and other bodies which use pressure-fed systems, whether directly or in conjunction with pump-fed engines,” the proposal added. “For Mars ascent, this technology is particularly attractive when using in-situ propellants since it eliminates the need for a pressurant like helium.”

A summary of the proposal follows.

Flight Demonstration of a Micropump-based Stage Pressurization System
Subtopic: Small Launch Vehicle Technologies and Demonstrations

Vector Launch Inc.
Tucson, AZ

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mr. James Robertson

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

Technical Abstract

Vector Launch, Inc. proposes to apply recent advances in micropump and additive manufacturing technologies to develop and demonstrate a micropump-based autogenous pressurization system for its commercial Vector-R and mature the technology with multiple static-fire-tests leading to a demonstration flight test (TRL 6).

The Vector-R is a 2-stage pressure-fed, LOX/subcooled propylene commercial small launch vehicle, designed to place up to 60 kg in low earth orbit. Electrically-driven micropumps drive a small portion of each propellant over a novel 3D-printed heat exchanger at the engine to pressurize the tanks. Excess flow can be diverted to the engine as needed.

This approach reduces system mass, complexity and acquisition cost as well as operational costs. It eliminates the need for all high-pressure tanks and associated components. It can be used on any pressure-fed stage, for launch vehicle and in-space application when using high vapor pressure propellants such as LOX/methane or LOX/propane. As such, it is an enabler for missions targeted to use in-situ propellants since the need for a separate pressurant like helium is either greatly reduced or eliminated.

By leveraging Vector’s ongoing commercially-funded Vector-R micro-launcher development, it is possible to reach TRL 6-ready system during Phase II and transition to the Vector-R operations (TRL-9) soon after.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The technology offers the means of drastically reducing the mass, complexity and cost of pressure-fed propulsion stages employing high vapor pressure propellants like LOX, methane, propylene and propane. The reductions in costs apply to both acquisition and operational costs of propulsive stages since the proposed system is simpler and lighter.

Applications include small launch vehicle stages where turbo-pumps are inefficient and cost-prohibitive. For Vector, the immediate application of the technology which will benefit NASA is the Vector-R launch vehicle. This vehicle is designed to provide dedicated launch services to nanosats up to 60 kg, with planned operations starting in July 2018.

Candidate small spacecraft which could benefit from dedicated launch services or reduced launch costs provided by the technology include numerous CubeSats and nanosats in development at NASA or funded by NASA, such as NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative and Educational Launch of Nanosatellites.

Longer-term potential applications include future missions to Mars and other bodies which use pressure-fed systems, whether directly or in conjunction with pump-fed engines. For Mars ascent, this technology is particularly attractive when using in-situ propellants since it eliminates the need for a pressurant like helium. The application of this technology for Mars missions is likely to be years away.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

With the Vector-R micro-launcher, Vector is positioning itself to provide responsive, dedicated launch to the micro- and nanosat market expected to burgeon in the next few years.

Candidate small spacecraft which could benefit from dedicated services or reduced launch costs provided by the technology include commercial entities operating constellations, such Planets (formerly known as Planet Labs) and Google’s Terra Bella (formerly known as Skybox Imaging), as well as numerous other CubeSats and nanosats development efforts funded NSF, the Air Force, ORS and SMDC.

Aggregators such as Spaceflight Industries would also benefit of the availability of dedicated, responsive launch for their numerous customers, particularly those targeting specific orbits or mission timelines

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Fuels/Propellants
  • Launch Engine/Booster