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Flight Works creates modular propulsion system for AFRL with $5.7M contract
Refuelable ASCENT Propulsion Unit for Modular Applications enabling sustained maneuver and Dynamic Space Operations.
Flight Works creates modular propulsion system for AFRL with $5.7M contract
by Clarence Oxford
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Apr 15, 2024

Flight Works has entered into a $5.7 million contract with the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) to develop a green, refuelable propulsion unit known as the Propulsion Unit with Modular Applications (PUMA). This initiative marks the beginning of a series of systems aimed at enhancing the capabilities of the United States Space Force (USSF), NASA, and various commercial entities engaged in complex space missions.

The new propulsion system is expected to significantly increase agility and resiliency for Dynamic Space Operations (DSO), a critical aspect recently highlighted by the USSF. In a discussion with CSIS earlier this year, General Guetlein, Vice Chief of Space Operations, emphasized the necessity for rapid counter-maneuver capabilities against near-peer competitors. Similarly, Lt. General Shaw, former deputy commander of the United States Space Command, pointed out the limitations posed by the lack of maneuverability.

"As AFRL, we are focused on delivering new capabilities that are adaptable to emerging mission needs. Modular in-space propulsion allows our military leaders the flexibility needed to operate in a dynamic space domain, and we are striving for rapid transitions through direct collaborations with the industrial base that the Space Force is leveraging. The effort with Flight Works is a great piece of the puzzle to make modular propulsion the path forward for new architectures," stated Dr. Shawn Phillips, Chief of the Rocket Propulsion Division at AFRL.

The PUMA system utilizes Flight Works' proven micro-pump-fed propulsion technology, originally developed for ESPA-class spacecraft. This technology, which has been supported by NASA, offers a safe and efficient alternative to conventional propellants like hydrazine. ASCENT (Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-toxic Propellant), previously known as AF-M315E, was showcased during NASA's Green Propellant Infusion Mission and the more recent Lunar Flashlight mission in 2022.

"With a pump, we can use low-pressure tanks and spacecraft operators can control the pump during the mission to tailor thruster performance to mission needs. The system can provide high pressure for deltaV maneuvers, and low pressure/low impulse bit for tight thruster control during maneuvers such as Rendezvous, Proximity Operations and Docking [RPOD]," explained Dr. Eric Besnard, President and CEO of Flight Works.

The system's innovative design allows for in-space refueling and extends on-orbit operations, enhancing mission longevity and flexibility. This capability, coupled with the micropump technology, positions PUMA as a transformative solution for future space endeavors.

"Modular propulsion is going to be a game-changing technology. From an R and D perspective it will remove many transition barriers associated with integrating new propulsion systems. From an operations perspective it enables responsive space for both ground integration and on-orbit maneuver. Ultimately, it's going to accelerate the pace at which the USSF can address adversarial threats in the space domain," added Major Joseph Dechert, Chief of the Spacecraft Branch at AFRL.

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