The innovation in this SBIR project is the maturation of AASC’s TRL-4 Metal Plasma Thruster into a TRL-9 system that is fully flight qualified by a launch into space (June 2020), followed by commercial sales of multiple thruster systems to NASA and other satellite makers. This SBIR [Z8.01 Small Spacecraft Propulsion Systems] points out that although there are currently many technologies for propulsion systems, the miniaturization of these systems for small spacecraft is a particular challenge. While cold gas or pulsed plasma systems support small Δv applications, modules that can provide more demanding maneuvers still need development. NASA seeks complete propulsion system solutions (thrusters, valves, propellant, sensors, electronics, etc.) capable of full-scale flight demonstration on 27U, 12U, 6U, or 3U CubeSats in support of deep space and/or swarm topology missions. Of particular interest are propulsion system solutions offering long life, reliability, and minimalistic use of CubeSat resources (power, energy, volume, and mass), while delivering propulsion capabilities that meet requirements. AASC has met these goals with its innovative, electric propulsion thruster (MPT) that has no moving parts, uses solid propellant (non-toxic stable metals such as Mo, Nb, Pd and many others), is compact (fits into 3U CubeSats, and is modular, so scalable to 12U, 27U and even larger platforms. The simplicity of the system and relatively low manufacturing cost make the MPT highly attractive to the CubeSat market. The technology has matured from TRL-4 to TRL-6 during the Ph-I effort. During Ph-II, we intend to take it to TRL-9 by launching into space and gathering operational data during positioning and attitude adjustment maneuvers on a 100kg satellite.
The MPT architecture lends itself to use on all NASA satellites in the 5 kg -250 kg category. Pathfinder (INSPIRE) is one example. The MPT could suit that mission, if a window of opportunity presents itself. NASA also plans to launch Lunar IceCube, a public-private partnership that will send a tiny CubeSat (Dec 2019) to do water-ice prospecting from an elliptical orbit around the moon. Lunar IceCube, Lunar Flashlight, BioSentinel and NEA Scout are part of a movement to employ cost-effective CubeSats for deep-space exploration.
1000s of satellites (5 kg -80 kg) might soon be in LEO. Imaging satellites that today are launched into higher than 500km to avoid rapid burn-up, would offer higher resolution and faster refresh rates at lower altitudes but would need propulsion. The MPT (compact, no moving parts, solid fuel) is ideal for these satellites and in custom designed arrays, could be useful for larger satellites too.