Firefly Research Receives NASA SBIR Award for Solar Electric Space Unity Vehicle

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has selected the research arm of Firefly Aerospace for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award to develop a solar electric transfer stage capable of taking payloads from the Earth to the moon.

“Firefly Research, LLC (FFR) is pleased to propose to NASA the development of a Space Utility Vehicle (SUV) to a CDR [critical design review] level of fidelity,” the technical abstract said. “This vehicle serves as a solar electric transfer stage, offering enough Delta-V to transfer more than 500 kg of payload from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to Low Lunar Orbit (LLO) after launch on a small lift launch vehicle.

“While most technologies needed for such a transfer stage are reasonably mature, the SUV is innovative in how the vehicle architecture breaks the long-held assumptions of Electric Propulsion (EP) being either slow or expensive. We are able to offer a high-power platform with rapid transit capability at a competitive cost through refueling and reuse of that platform, amortizing platform cost over multiple missions,” the proposal added.

Firefly Research said the SUV has the following applications:

  • transfer of spacecraft from LEO to LLO (200 kg payload in near-term at low power, with growth path to 500 kg);
  • transfer of NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) lunar lander from geosynchronous transfer orbit to LLO, and further service as a communications relay throughout surface mission;
  • dedicated mission from small-lift launcher to high Delta-V trajectories like lunar orbit and Earth-Moon Lagrange points; and
  • mission extension of satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

The SBIR Phase I award is worth up to $125,000 for research lasting six months. Upon completion of the work, the company could apply for a Phase II award worth up to $750,000. NASA also provides a very limited number of Phase III awards for promising technologies.

Dr. William Coogan, who is lunar lander chief engineer at Firefly Aerospace, is the project’s principal investigator.

In February, NASA awarded Firefly Aerospace a $93.3 million contract to deliver 10 instruments to the surface of the moon under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. Firefly will use its Blue Ghost lander for the mission, which is set to launch in 2023.

A summary of the SUV proposal follows.

SBIR PHASE 1 AWARD
Amount: up to $125,000
Duration: 6 months

Reusable High Delta-V Transfer Stage for Small Spacecraft
Subtopic Title: Small Spacecraft Transfer Stage Development

Firefly Research, Inc.
Cedar Park, TX

Principal Investigator: Dr. William Coogan

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 3
End: 5

Technical Abstract

Firefly Research, LLC (FFR) is pleased to propose to NASA the development of a Space Utility Vehicle (SUV) to a CDR level of fidelity. This vehicle serves as a solar electric transfer stage, offering enough Delta-V to transfer more than 500 kg of payload from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to Low Lunar Orbit (LLO) after launch on a small lift launch vehicle.

While most technologies needed for such a transfer stage are reasonably mature, the SUV is innovative in how the vehicle architecture breaks the long-held assumptions of Electric Propulsion (EP) being either slow or expensive. We are able to offer a high-power platform with rapid transit capability at a competitive cost through refueling and reuse of that platform, amortizing platform cost over multiple missions.

In this section, we explain the details of this architecture, the roadmap to a commercially viable SUV including developments already underway, and the specific aspects that will benefit from SBIR funding.

Potential NASA Applications

1) Transfer from LEO to LLO (200 kg payload in near-term at low power, with growth path to 500 kg).

2) Transfer of Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) lunar lander from GTO to LLO, and further service as a communications relay throughout surface mission.

3) Dedicated mission from small-lift launcher to high Delta-V trajectories like lunar orbit and Earth-Moon Lagrange points.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The primary non-NASA market targeted by this platform is the GEO market. While the Northrop Grumman Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) has already demonstrated the viability of mission extension in GEO, we will provide a similar service with the added advantage of being able to service more satellites in a shorter time span. Also, final-mile service for small satellites launch rideshare to LEO.