NASA Selects In-Space Propulsion Projects for SBIR Funding

NASA has selected six in-space propulsion projects for funding under the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The phase II contracts last for two years and are worth up to $750,000.

The awards include:

e beam, Inc.
Beaverton, OR
Cathode for Electric Space Propulsion Utilizing Iodine as Propellant

Plasma Controls, LLC
Fort Collins, CO
Iodine Hollow Cathode

Quest Thermal Group
Arvada, CO
Multi-Environment MLI: Novel Multi-Functional Insulation for Mars Missions

Streamline Automation, LLC
Huntsville, AL
Hybrid Propulsion Technology for Robotic Science Missions

TDA Research, Inc.
Wheat Ridge, CO
Novel Sorbent to Remove Radioactive Halogens and Noble Gases from NTP Engine Exhaust

WASK Engineering, Inc.
Cameron Park, CA
High Response Control Valve

Summaries of the proposals follow.

Cathode for Electric Space Propulsion Utilizing Iodine as Propellant
Subtopic: Propulsion Systems for Robotic Science Missions

e beam, Inc.
Beaverton, OR

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mr. Bernard Vancil

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

Technical Abstract

A hollow reservoir cathode for use in ion and Hall thrusters which uses iodine as propellant. Reservoir cathodes have unique features not found in conventional impregnated cathodes. The critical barium reduction process occurs in the reservoir, not in the matrix, and this isolates that process from iodine poisoning. Also, the barium supply is 100 times greater than is available in conventional cathodes. This allows much higher rates of barium to flow to the cathode’s surface – enough to overcome iodine poisoning. Also, metals resistant to iodine attack can be used in the cathode matrix.

We propose constructing large numbers of reservoir cathodes with various compositions and activities. We propose a systematic study of these cathodes in iodine to discover the factors which provide the successful performance. We also propose a miniature reservoir cathode for use in CubeSats, where iodine’s compactness is most appealing. NASA is pursuing iodine EP because of its many advantages over xenon. These include low cost and high storage density.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

NASA’s primary interest is for iodine thrusters of less than 1 KW. It is also interested in powers over 10 KW. NASA has a critical need for reliable cathodes, both for discharge and neutralization. NanoSats are the largest market with iodine supply between 1 and 10 Kg and power at about 200 watts.

A 12U CubeSat sponsored by NASA Glenn Research Center will employ an iodine ion thruster. NASA Glenn and the Marshall Space Flight Center are co-sponsoring the iSat (iodine satellite) project. It, too, needs reliable cathodes. 2,000 to 2,750 small satellites are planned for this project.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Busek Co. is the main non-NASA producer of iodine thrusters. We have been in communication with it to supply cathodes if this project is successful. CubeSats are the largest non-NASA market. They are the mainstay of university and private space science projects.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Fuels/Propellants
  • Prototyping
  • Sources (Renewable, Nonrenewable)

Iodine Hollow Cathode
Subtopic: Propulsion Systems for Robotic Science Missions

Plasma Controls, LLC
Fort Collins, CO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. Casey Farnell

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 5

Technical Abstract

Plasma Controls, LLC will develop an iodine-compatible hollow cathode for use in Hall-effect thrusters. Materials in current state-of-the-art electron emitters, and many of the materials used in mounting hardware, are not compatible in a high-temperature iodine environment. This includes cathodes that use inserts made from porous tungsten impregnated with ceramics containing barium oxide, which can be susceptible to rapid decomposition of the ceramic by iodine, and lanthanum hexaboride-based inserts, which are subject to rapid surface decomposition by iodine. The work function of both types of inserts increases in the presence of iodine, and the temperature of the cathode increases, which further exacerbates the decomposition processes.

We will use a materials science based approach to evaluate the chemical interactions between iodine and a range of potential materials at elevated temperature. We will construct and experimentally test candidate cathodes in relevant iodine environments to identify robust, safe-to-handle, chemically-stable material systems.

In Phase II work, we will (1) perform long duration wear tests to demonstrate adequately long lifetime capability and (2) integrate the cathodes into iodine storage, feed, and thruster systems through industry and government partnerships.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

NASA aims to mature and demonstrate iodine electric propulsion technologies. Of particular interest are iodine hollow cathodes with lifetimes greater than 10,000 hours. Hollow cathodes are used in electric propulsion devices, including Hall effect and ion thrusters, to sustain discharge plasmas and neutralize ion beams, and in plasma contacting devices to neutralize spacecraft charge.

Ultra-long-life, high-power, and wide-operating-current-range cathodes are needed for the Science Mission Directorate’s ambitious deep space missions, and low-power, high-efficiency cathodes for secondary payload cube-sat missions.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

A fully iodine compatible hollow cathode and thruster system is of great interest to commercial spaceflight satellite and cube-sat missions as a size, weight, and power and economic and enabler of smaller propulsion systems.

In addition, hollow cathode electron sources are commonly used as components of ion and plasma sources in ground-based, materials processing applications. This includes ion etching of surfaces, ion-assisted film deposition, ion implantation, and chemical vapor deposition; processes which can present similarly challenging chemical environments to that of iodine.

Robust and long life hollow cathodes developed through this work are anticipated to be highly commercially attractive as they would reduce maintenance expenses and process downtime. However, their attractiveness grows exponentially if they could be used in applications that were previously off limits due to the presence of highly reactive gases and plasmas.

Hollow cathode technologies are also advantageous as electron sources in high-current, electron-beam melting applications and in gas/liquid/solid material analysis equipment.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Metallics
  • Spacecraft Main Engine

Multi-Environment MLI: Novel Multi-Functional Insulation for Mars Missions
Subtopic: Cryogenic Fluid Management

Quest Thermal Group
Arvada, CO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Scott Dye

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 4
End: 5

Technical Abstract

Human exploration requires advances in cryogenic propellant storage for missions to Earth orbit, cis-lunar, Mars and beyond. NASA has need of new technology offering high performance insulation for Mars missions, including Mars LOX or LCH4 surface liquefaction and storage and Mars Lander/Ascent Vehicle. Quest Thermal Group has developed Multi-Environment MLI (MEMLI), a novel multi-functional thermal insulation system that uses a thin lightweight semi-rigid Vacuum Shell supported by Quest IMLI layers and spacers for low heat flux and optimized for Mars atmospheric pressure.

Quest engineers designed, modeled, analyzed, fabricated and tested a novel multi-functional insulation capable of providing high thermal performance both in-space and on-Mars surface for Mars missions. A thin metal semi-rigid vacuum shell is optimally supported by Quest IMLI spacers, providing low heat flux and low mass.

A 10-layer MEMLI prototype provided low 0.19 W/m2 heat flux both in-vacuum and at 4.5 torr CO2 (105-210K), with a low mass of 1.5 kg/m2. Multi-Environment MLI was successfully proven feasible, is at TRL4, and remains a strong candidate for NASA Mars surface liquefaction and Mars Lander needed new technology.

This Phase II program will continue developing MEMLI, with focus on further development of lightweight, supported Vacuum Shells for use on more real world tanks, development of flight-like hardware for vacuum control, increasing robustness and durability, and maturing the technology.

Tasks in the Phase II program include validation of Mars mission requirements, Phase I review, updating structural and thermal models, continued development of very thin welded semi-rigid vacuum shells (down to 0.005” thick) studying their application, performance and durability for Mars missions. MEMLI will be built, installed and tested on larger, more complex cryogenic tanks for performance in all mission environments (in-air prelaunch, in-space cruise, and on-Mars surface).

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

NASA has critical needs for improved cryogenic storage technology, including active and passive insulation. Mars missions have other demanding requirements, including the ability for low heat flux in Mars atmosphere, as well as during in-space travel, with durability and low mass.

Quest designed, built, tested and demonstrated good performance from new Multi-Environment MLI (MEMLI) technology, which offers thin, lightweight vacuum shells supported by IMLI layers and spacers. MEMLI may offer one third to one half the heat flux of equal layers of conventional netting-MLI, with a thin 0.010? Al vacuum shell, and MEMLI may have one-third the mass of conventional MLI and conventional vacuum shell.

MEMLI, with equal heat flux in-space and on-Mars, and providing sufficient durability at low mass, is a strong candidate to insulate LOX or LCH4 storage tanks from Mars surface liquefaction activities, may prove useful for Mars Lander/Ascent Vehicle cryogenic management needs, and the thin vacuum shell offers better thermal performance in-air than SOFI, with a relatively durable metal vacuum shell, potentially offering new capabilities insulating launch vehicles.

Thin, lightweight vacuum shells may provide new capabilities and benefits for NASA space exploration missions and spacecraft.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Quest Thermal develops & promotes new technologies. IMLI will fly on GPIM, IMLI will fly on a RRM3 flight experiment, Quest is working with ULA on several new technologies for launch vehicles. Clearly, an insulation system designed for outstanding performance for Mars missions will have limited non-NASA use, although, perhaps SpaceX might benefit from this technology.

MEMLI provided good thermal performance and potentially provides new capabilities and benefits for launch vehicles and spacecraft, depending on their mission and requirements. MEMLI, for example, provides a lower heat flux than Spray On Foam Insulation, at near equal mass, with much greater robustness than SOFI.

Several aerospace prime contractors are now following with interest Quest and Ball Aerospace development of IMLI and related insulation systems. LRMLI (and variants such as CLRMLI or VCMLI) could significantly improve upper stage cryotank thermal insulation, reducing cryopropellant boiloff losses and increasing payload capacity for missions with long coasts.

Use of high performance VCMLI to replace SOFI would improve payload capacity in cryogenic upper stages, such as Vulcan and SLS. ULA funded in 2016 a subcontract to Ball and Quest to do early development and testing of VCMLI, in hopes of using it on an upcoming Delta IV Heavy mission, NROL-44, where the VCMLI would reduce boiloff from the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage LH2 tank.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Cryogenic/Fluid Systems
  • Fuels/Propellants
  • Isolation/Protection/Shielding (Acoustic, Ballistic, Dust, Radiation, Thermal)
  • Passive Systems
  • Smart/Multifunctional Materials

Hybrid Propulsion Technology for Robotic Science Missions
Subtopic: Propulsion Systems for Robotic Science Missions

Streamline Automation, LLC
Huntsville, AL

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. William Chew

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 5

Technical Abstract

C3 Propulsion’s novel Hybrid Propulsion System (HPS) will be applied to a NASA-selected Robotic Science Mission. Phase I demonstrated the Proof-of-Principle and Phase II will design, fabricate, and demonstrate a flight-like propulsion system for that specific application. The HPS is non-toxic, stable, and has energy management (throttleable or pulse-width modulated) capabilities.

In Phase I, C3 Propulsion demonstrated that its hybrid fuel formulations can withstand storage at -78ºC, with minimal effect on its physical or ballistic properties, and is expected to be able to operate in the cold temperature of Mars and outer planet moons. Its simple design decreases risk, reduces size, reduces mass, and increases reliability. It has high volume and density specific impulses and is expected to increase performance and lower costs.

In Phase II, a specific robotic science mission will be identified to determine system issues, including thrust, total impulse, weight, and volume. The selected mission will affect the design and operation of the system and will lead to a notional HPS design.

A mini-thruster, Hybrid Screening Engine (HSE), will be designed, based on the notional system, to complete the development of a baseline fuel formulation. This formulation will be thoroughly characterized for mechanical properties, including the thermal coefficient of expansion.

A full-scale heavyweight thruster will be designed and tested at the test stand of the Propulsion Research Center (University of Alabama in Huntsville), which is being upgraded by MDA. A preliminary HPS will be designed to determine the volume, shape, and weight of the selected propulsion system for future programs. A DoT Hazard Classification for the baseline fuel will be obtained, which is expected to be no more hazardous than 1.4C.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

C3 Propulsion’s Hybrid Propulsion Technology systems are applicable for any NASA propulsion needs other than space launch boosters. It is non-toxic, has the ability to pulse or throttle for complex maneuvering, perform ascent operations from planets, moons, and asteroids, perform ACS and station keeping operations, is applicable to both manned and robotic missions and can operate at cold temperatures.

The thrust is scalable from a few to millions of Newtons. It has high density impulse like solid propulsion systems, has the versatility of liquid propulsion systems, and is safer and more environmentally friendly than either.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

C3 Propulsion’s Hybrid Propulsion Technology can be used for any missile or satellite station keeping application when more than simple ballistic trajectories are desired. Such applications would be small tactical Army and Marine missiles such as TOW, Javelin, and Hellfire, Air Force and Navy air-to-air and air-to ground missiles such as AIM-9 Sidewinder and AGM-65 Maverick, and third stage booster ACS and Divert and Attitude Control Systems for MDA ballistic missile defense applications.

Civilian missile manufacturers would be interested in the ACS for their boosters and even for the smaller boost applications. Satellite manufacturers would be interested in their position and station keeping abilities.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Fuels/Propellants
  • Launch Engine/Booster
  • Maneuvering/Stationkeeping/Attitude Control Devices
  • Models & Simulations (see also Testing & Evaluation)
  • Relative Navigation (Interception, Docking, Formation Flying; see also Control & Monitoring; Planetary Navigation, Tracking, & Telemetry)
  • Surface Propulsion

Novel Sorbent to Remove Radioactive Halogens and Noble Gases from NTP Engine Exhaust
Subtopic: Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP)

TDA Research, Inc.
Wheat Ridge, CO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. Ambalavanan Jayaraman Ph.D.

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 5

Technical Abstract

Solid-core Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) has been identified as the advanced propulsion concept which could provide the fastest trip times with fewer Space Launch System (SLS) launches for human missions to Mars.

Current environmental regulations require that radioactive halogens, noble gases, aerosols and particulates must be filtered out of NTP engine exhaust during ground testing. In Phase I, we demonstrated the ability of our sorbent to remove ppm levels of halogens and noble gases from helium at high space velocities over multiple regeneration cycles.

In this SBIR Phase II project, TDA Research, Inc. proposes to develop a novel scrubber that contains our high-capacity sorbent to remove of the radioactive halogens and noble gases from NTP engine exhaust, as part of NASA’s larger exhaust treatment system.

In Phase II, we will continue to optimize the sorbent formulation, scale up its production, and design and build a portable sub-scale unit to demonstrate its ability to selectively remove >99.5% radioactive halogens and noble gases under simulated NTP engine exhaust conditions. Based on the performance results, we will carry out a detailed design of the full-size scrubbing system for treating NTP engine exhaust and estimate its size, cost and energy requirements.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The sorbents developed in the Phase II will find use in scrubber systems for NTP engine exhaust during ground testing. Current environmental regulations require that radioactive halogens, noble gases, aerosols and particulates must be filtered out of NTP engine exhaust during ground testing to stay within safe limits. A high efficiency sorbent that removes radioactive halogens and noble gases (greater than 99.5%) is of specific interest to NASA.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

There is a much larger commercial market for the sorbents developed here in spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities to control emissions of radioactive halogens and noble gases. Some of the radioisotopes that are recovered (such as iodine-131) are also important in nuclear medicine.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Lifetime Testing
  • Spacecraft Main Engine

High Response Control Valve
Subtopic: Methane In-Space Propulsion

WASK Engineering, Inc.
Cameron Park, CA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Wendel Burkhardt

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

Technical Abstract

WASK Engineering proposes to refine the design of an piezo actuated throttling valve fabricated in Phase 1 that has demonstrated the ability to open within 2.6 msec to meet the requirements of a 100 lbf RCS thruster. This includes verifying the valve cycle life and valve leakage amounts.

Similar valves designed by WASK Engineering have operated for more than 2×109 cycles while maintaining a leakage rate of less than 1×10-3 sccm of He. The current valve design is configured to operate with cryogenic propellants and support the flow rates requried for a 100 lbf liquid oxygen/liquid methane thruster. A piezo actuated valve has many benefits for RCS thrusters.

The speed with which the valve can adjust its throttle position means that with two such valves the thruster propellant mixture ratio can be rapidly adjusted to prevent hardware damage. The valves have the ability to continuously throttle over a range of thrust levels, allowing the thruster to operate from zero to full thrust. The piezo crystals use very little power, reducing the overall power consumption, again reducing weight.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Potential NASA applications include extremely durable, high-performance, low cost RCS systems for manned space flight to support high performance propulsion requirements such as orbit transfer, descent, ascent and pulsing attitude control.

The ability to throttle makes the control very effective, as the impulse bit can be adjusted from large to very small depending on the immediate requirement. This has the benefit of simplifying the control system due to the very small minimum impulse bit possible.

These valves can also be used as propellant valves for small monopropellant and bipropellant thrusters. This is especially the case if throttling is desired in the thrusters.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The valve is applicable for propellant flow control to both cryogenic and non-cryogenic thrusters. We are already in discussions with a potential customer for application of the valve developed in the Phase 1 effort to gaseous RCS thrusters. The size, availability, reliability, low power consumption, and very high response rate are all features that have helped generate the interest in the valve.

We are also examining the potential of increasing the flow rate through the valve to provide a wider range of applicability to the valve. These applications include the ability to act as a pressure and flow regulator, the ability to eliminate pressure regulators from a system due to the ability of the valve to throttle, and as a valve for cold gas thrusters where the rapid valve response allows the generation of very small impulse bits for precision control applications.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Actuators & Motors
  • Cryogenic/Fluid Systems
  • Maneuvering/Stationkeeping/Attitude Control Devices
  • Pressure & Vacuum Systems

  • Michael Halpern

    I like thermal groups non nasa application