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Electric Propulsion for Dual Launch



TECHNOLOGY AREA(S): Space Platforms

The technology within this topic is restricted under the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR), 22 CFR Parts 120-130, which controls the export and import of defense-related material and services, including export of sensitive technical data, or the Export Administration Regulation (EAR), 15 CFR Parts 730-774, which controls dual use items. Offerors must disclose any proposed use of foreign nationals (FNs), their country(ies) of origin, the type of visa or work permit possessed, and the statement of work (SOW) tasks intended for accomplishment by the FN(s) in accordance with section 5.4.c.(8) of the solicitation and within the AF Component-specific instructions. Offerors are advised foreign nationals proposed to perform on this topic may be restricted due to the technical data under US Export Control Laws. Please direct questions to the AF SBIR/STTR Contracting Officer, Ms. Gail Nyikon,

OBJECTIVE: Develop high-thrust solar electric propulsion technologies that enable/enhance mission capabilities and dual manifest launch opportunities for national security space assets.

DESCRIPTION: Pervasive electric propulsion (EP) technologies greatly enhance in-space maneuverability and spacecraft payload capacity for many DoD missions, such as transfer to Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO), when compared to liquid chemical propulsion [1]. Satellites with EP as primary propulsion have lower propellant mass requirements, which provide cost and schedule advantages with launch vehicle step-down, dual launch, or mixed manifest capability on existing launch vehicles to reduce the number of satellite launches. This has significant benefits for DoD and commercial applications [2,3,4]. State-of-the-art EP on the Air Force Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites have demonstrated orbit transfer from geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) to GEO, however this required multiple months of thruster firing time due to low thrust levels, which are limited by the available on-board power. Thus, maximizing thruster efficiency and thrust to power (T/P) levels are necessary to reduce orbit transfer time, specifically to minimize duration through the Van Allen radiation belts [5]. Existing technologies, such as high-power Hall thrusters, have demonstrated reduced efficiency when operating at peak T/P and must operate at a de-rated power, further reducing overall thrust [1].

This solicitation seeks research on EP system technologies capable of greater than 70% efficiency over the range of 1400 to 2000 seconds specific impulse (Isp), corresponding to T/P levels of 109 to 76 millinewtons per kilowatt (mN/kW), respectively. This efficiency includes power processing and ancillary losses, such as cathode flow or electromagnet power requirements. Proposal solutions may be either ideas for advancing existing thruster technologies or the development of new concepts, such as high-power electrospray propulsion. Specific power of the thruster and power processing should be less than 6 kg/kW. A representative power level for this technology is 3-10 kW, though subscale demonstrations may be conducted at lower power levels to accommodate cost-effective research activities. The full propulsion system (thruster, power processing unit & propellant feed) should define a clear path for transition to national security space applications in the proposal.

The thruster technology should be capable of supporting a 15-year mission in GEO or Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and 5 years in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) after ground storage of 5 years.

PHASE I: Perform proof-of-concept analysis and experiments that demonstrate the feasibility of the high performance electric propulsion concept. End TRL 2 to TRL 4.

PHASE II: Measure performance and plume characteristics of breadboard hardware to demonstrate program goals for the high performance electric propulsion concept. Breadboard hardware will be evaluated on thrust stands at AFRL, and achieve TRL 5 at the end of Phase II activities. Deliverables include breadboard hardware, preliminary cost analyses, and full performance analysis with comparison to state-of-the-art EP.

PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: Transition of a mature high performance electric thruster will reduce satellite orbit transfer time and enable/enhance dual launch or mixed manifest capabilities. Additional transition partners may include NASA and U.S. manufactured large GEO communications satellites.


  • Brown, D. L., Beal, B E., Haas, J. M., “Air Force Research Laboratory High Power Electric Propulsion Technology Development,” IEEEAC Paper #1549, Presented at the IEEE Aerospace Conference, Big Sky, MT, March 3-7, 2009.
  • “Commercial Space Transportation Forecasts,” Report, Federal Aviation Administration, Office of Commercial Space Transportation and the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, May 2013
  • Sargent, Anne-Wainscott, “SpaceX Effect Fuels Efficiency Push in Launch Services Market,” Via Satellite, July 17, 2014 (
  • Feuerborn, S. A., Neary, D. A., Perkins, J. M., “Finding a Way: Boeing’s All Electric Propulsion Satellite,” AIAA-2013-4126, 49th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference, July 14-17, 2013.
  • Observations of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors, 4th Edition, Herbert J. Kramer, Springer Science & Business Media, 2002.

KEYWORDS: Electric Propulsion, Dual Launch, Dual Manifest, Thrust to Power, Orbit Transfer


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