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Flexible Electric Propulsion for Resilient Spacecraft



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 low-cost, flexible solar electric propulsion technologies that enable/enhance resilient mission capabilities and disaggregated satellite architectures.

DESCRIPTION: Electric propulsion (EP) is a pervasive space technology that greatly enhances in-space maneuverability compared to liquid chemical propulsion [1]. Satellites with EP have lower propellant mass requirements for the same maneuver, which reduces the overall satellite wet mass, enables more on-board propellant for additional maneuvers or extended lifetime, or increased payload mass capability [1, 2]. These capabilities enable numerous advantages for satellite resiliency, including dual launch or mixed manifest for functional disaggregation [3], and flexible positioning to enhance satellite options for multi-orbit disaggregation. To this end, a high efficiency EP technology compatible with chemical propellants could be paired with a chemical thruster to produce highly flexible and efficient multi-mode propulsion (MMP) system. An agile MMP system with shared propellant and tanks reduces system complexity and increases risk mitigation redundancy by enabling flexible and optimal utilization of propellant between the EP and chemical thruster system for in-space maneuvers, including orbit transfer, repositioning, station-keeping, attitude control, and disposal. Realizing these advantages requires innovative solar electric propulsion technologies with high efficiency and high thrust when operated with lightweight, molecular propellants used in chemical propulsion, such as hydrazine or advanced “green” energetic monopropellant formulations [4]. To date, EP technologies have not met the performance and lifetime requirements needed for agile MMP capabilities [5, 6].

This solicitation seeks research on electric thruster technologies capable of greater than 110 mN/kW over a specific impulse from 1000-1500 seconds. Proposal solutions may be either ideas for improving existing thruster technology or the development of new concepts. Specific power of the thruster and power processing electronics should be less than 6 kg/kW. A representative power level for this technology is 1-5 kW per thruster, though demonstrations may be conducted at different power levels or with simulated propellant 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.

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 flexible electric propulsion will enhance satellite resiliency with increased in-space maneuverability and reduced propellant mass. Transition may include NASA and the U.S. commercial 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.
  • 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.
  • “Resiliency and Disaggregated Space Architectures,” White Paper, AFD-130821-034, Air Force Space Command, Released August 21, 2013.
  • Spores, R. A., Masse, R., Kimbrel, S., McLean, C., “GPIM AF-M315E Propulsion System,” AIAA-2013-3849, 49th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference, July 14-17, 2013.
  • Frisbee, R. H., “Evaluation of High-Power Solar Electric Propulsion Using Advanced Ion, Hall, MPD, and PIT Thrusters for Lunar and Mars Cargo Missions,” AIAA-2006-4465, 42nd AIAA Joint Propulsion Conference, Sacramento, CA, 9-12 July, 2006.

KEYWORDS: Electric Propulsion, Resiliency, Flexible, Disaggregation, Orbit Transfer

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