So Would You Call it XPPS?

It’s been kind of interesting to watch the ebb and flow of space business over the past decade or so since I started following things closely. One of the companies I had been particularly interested in the past was Microcosm of El Segundo, CA. I became interested in them due to my former fetish for “Minimum Cost Design” ELVs like the Scorpius that they were (and still are) developing. They also had some interesting papers back in 98 or 99 about low cost lunar settlements that inspired some of the thought that went into my old “Prometheus Downport Project” idea for a commercial lunar settlement. I noticed a link to their site from another space related news site (Lunar Enterprise Daily) today and stumbled across some interesting research they’re doing.

Advanced warning, these are SBIRs, and Phase I’s at that, which means that it’ll be a while before they’ve even proven these will work at all, but they had two interesting projects that I figured were worth bringing more attention to.

The first was for their Micromak miniature (100 gram) star tracker that might be of use for nano and pico sats, the general idea I get is that by using mirrors and avoiding direct lines of sight to space, they are able to get away with a simpler sensor, and to make it more rad hard at the same time. Or so they claim. I personally wouldn’t mind seeing something like that on the shelf eventually. Star Trackers are an excellent way to get orientation information in space.

The other one that appeared even more interesting to me was the idea (which I’ll dub X-ray Pulsar Positioning System or XPPS for short) of using naturally occuring signals from X-ray Pulsars to provide positioning and attitude data anywhere in the solar system, not just inside the orbit of existing GPS satellites. If something like that works, it could make interplanetary navigation substantially easier, much as GPS has made terrestrial navigation so much easier. GPS is really convenient, and it would be nice to get even some of the benefits of it without having to pay the huge infrastructure costs of setting up systems like that around every interesting planet or moon that we want to settle in the future. All that said, this is just a Phase I SBIR, and it would be interesting to know more about how they were actually planning on doing this. Anyone have any thoughts?

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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9 Responses to So Would You Call it XPPS?

  1. Juan Suros says:

    Microcosm does look interesting, but I like their potential for low cost thrust chambers more than their instrument ideas. It hasn’t escaped me that for all their advances SpaceX is still asking for a price per Merlin of around USD$3 million for 77k lbf, call it USD$40/lbf.

    All the other rocket engine manufacturers seem to be pricing their engines higher than that, and the rocket engine seems to be the one indespensible technology for all the near term schemes out there.

    It’s good to see someone is working toward lowering the price of the rocket engine itself.

  2. Jon Goff says:

    Juan,
    The problem is that rocket engines by themselves are only part of the picture. One of the things I’ve seen a lot in say manufacturing is local suboptimization leading to system wide disoptimization. In much simpler terms, it’s possible to make one part really cheap in such a way that it makes the rest of the system more expensive, or at least not as inexpensive as if you looked at the whole vehicle.

    A cheap rocket engine that has to be remanufactured for each flight is going to be a lot more expensive (from a full-system perspective) than a slightly more expensive but more reusable system. That said, I’d be surprised if our verniers came out to $40/lbf. That’d be nearly $20k each, and I’m having a hard time figuring out what we could put on our engines to make them cost that much….. 😉

    Their engine work is still interesting work as you say, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see them focusing more and more on becoming a supplier of high quality, low-cost space GN&C systems and other electronics stuff like that. Not everyone in the industry should be focusing on building rocket engines.

    ~Jon

  3. jv says:

    Jon,
    DARPA is also working on a project to use pulsars for navigation –

    DARPA’s director slides (page 3) for the VSE commission:
    http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/moontomars/docs/050304SlidesTether.pdf

    and program details:
    https://safe.sysplan.com/xnav/3_Overview.pdf

  4. Juan Suros says:

    Jon,

    I can’t help but wonder if you’re confusing price and cost in the figure you quote for your verniers, but in any case the more work on cheaper rockets the better.

    As to cheap rocket engine considerations being only one consideration in system design; true but I think you are thinking of reusable hardware.

    I’ve read about how the Kistler K-1 design plans to fly 100 times with engines that were designed for expendable boosters. This doesn’t make me admire the engine design, it makes me wonder just how much of the cost of those engines were unnecessary for their design purpose.

    Consider mating a Microcosm thrust chamber designed to be really cheap and single use with something like a pistonless fuel pump. What sort of price per lbf, and hence booster price, could you get with such a combination?

    This approach would lower the cost of each of the high cost items in a standard rocket engine, the thrust chamber and the turbopump. Get the $/lbf down and everything else gets simpler.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Jon,

    Your spirited and skillful defense
    of the unpopular expendables was a valuable addition to the sci.space.– groups. From my skimming of the groups now, it would appear that there are no similar proponents of them now…that are worth reading.

    redneck

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m interested in reading the ‘Prometheus Downport’ paper, but the google links & others that I can find for it, are all 404.

    Is there any place that it is still available?

  7. Jon Goff says:

    Anonymous,
    Regarding the “Prometheus Downport Project”, I think I still have some copies of my latest version of that poking around somewhere. I had planned some sort of massive revision and upgrade at some point, but between work and other things, I haven’t had the opportunity. Plus technology (and my opinions now about how to do some things) are in such rapid flux that I think a lot of the original work is now kind of obsolete.

    All that said, I’ll see what I can pull together. In the meantime, you could check the Way Back Machine (I think it’s at http://www.archive.org or something like that). They may have a cached version.

    ~Jon

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the reminder about http://www.archive.org!

    (I’m a sysadmin, not the web designer at the office, so I don’t usually care about anything that’s more than a few weeks old).


    Here’s the page.

    –Carl

  9. Jon Goff says:

    Jv,
    Thanks for the link to the DARPA program, that explains things a lot better. That really does look like an intriguing possibility. Even knowing your position within 1km anywhere in the solar system would be very, very userful.

    ~Jon

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