Saturday, April 09, 2011

Space Access '11: Altius Space Machines - Jon Goff

This talk didn't involve space prizes, but I'm covering it because of Jon's past involvement with the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge and possible interest in the Nanosatellite Launcher Challenge. I will probably cover some other presentations for similar reasons. It's likely that I'll cover Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander competitors in general.

This is the first time that Jon has pitched his company in front of a big audience.

Jon was part of the original Masten Space Systems team, he's the author of the Selenian Boondocks web site, and he's interested in propellant depots. Last July, he left Masten Space Systems, and started Altius Space Machines in Louisville, CO. Ian Garcia from MSS is also at ASM. His hunch is that many key space technologies can be profitably developed today. You can attack the problem of affordable space access from both sides and the middle. His plan is to bootstrap using contract engineering in the style of XCOR with longer-term goals in mind during the contracts.

The first ASM product is a rendezvous and docking technology. RLV markets are difficult. An RLV needs about 50 flights per year to be worth doing. Robust operations require 2-3 vehicles per vehicle builder. A robust industry requires 2-3 builders. All of that implies hundreds of flights per year are needed for a robust RLV industry. Rendezvous and docking events are a bottleneck at those levels of flights. To help solve that problem, ASM is working on a "tractor beam": an electrostatic sticky boom.

The boom is capable of rendezvous with a non-cooperative target. Electrostatically adhering to surfaces works better in a vacuum. They filed a provisional patent with SRI for the sticky boom. It can grab objects of any material, size, and shape. A long boom allows distant capture to reduce collision risk. It simplifies rendezvous. It also lowers the risk of plume impingement. Jon gave an analogy to ropes and a dock when bringing in a boat, or fighter plane refueling with a boom. The boat and plane don't crash into the dock or refueling tanker.

There are many potential applications of the boom. It can be used for Mars Sample Return, despinning objects, grabbing NEO samples, grabbing lost EVA tools, space debris cleanup, and satellite servicing. Eventually depot rendezvous and docking could use the boom. More frequent deliveries could be made to and from the ISS.

The status is that they won their SBIR proposal, they made a proof of concept, and they presented at the D.C. technology day. They sent in a Zero-G flight proposal.

Jon did a demo of the boom, which was clearly popular with the audience.

Their roadmap includes Zero-G tests, suborbital/ISS/rideshare tests, and eventually actual missions using the boom. The business goals include technology demonstrations, satellite servicing, space science missions and developing a team.