Small-sat Propellant Management Technology

PI: Steven Collicott, Purdue University

SmallSats, cube-sats, micro-sats, nano-sats, every kind of new generation miniaturized satellites have unique liquid propellant management constraints if the satellite uses liquid propellants in any volume. The smaller volume of the SmallSat bus is now driving design towards conformal propellant tanks which optimize volume inside a small sat, unlike traditional axisymmetric pressure vessels used in large satellites. Maneuvering, swarming, collaborative, and adaptive SmallSats and systems of SmallSats are all in development, bringing novel new demands on propellant management in orbit. NASA's Technology Roadmap lists the optimization of the thruster and propulsion system to meet SmallSat mission-specific requirements as a technology challenge. This research addresses these and other NASA spaceflight technology needs.

Technology Areas (?)
  • TA02 In-Space Propulsion Technologies
Problem Statement

At the small lengths scales of SmallSats, the traditional spherical and similar axisymmetric geometries for minimum-weight pressure vessels are not required and innovative volume-efficient conformal tanks are legitimate design options. The interiors of the novel new tanks require passive control of liquid propellants as in traditional large satellites and this passive control is performed with surface tension propellant management devices (PMDs). PMDs are sheet metal vanes, traps (sumps), sponges, galleries and screen designed to maintain liquid at the tank outlet, deliver gas-free propellant to thrusters, and control the location of the mass center of the liquid for superior attitude control and efficient use of propellants.

Technology Maturation

Cubes, cylinders, rectangular parallelepipeds, conformal L-shaped volumes, and similar are combined with internal corners in the expected new generation of volume-efficient SmallSat tanks which require proof of operations in weightlessness. Parabolic flight testing provides an efficient means to rapidly evaluate the zero-g control and draining performance of a new generation of propellant tank geometries and propellant management device design options enabled and necessitated by SmallSats.

Technology Details

  • Selection Date
    REDDI-F1-17B (Apr 2018)
  • Program Status
  • Current TRL (?)
    Successful FOP Flights
  • 1 Parabolic

Development Team

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