NASA Increases Investment in Photon Thruster Spacecraft Control

Tustin, CA -- In an apparent vote of confidence for development of photon thruster formation flight (PTFF) spacecraft in ultra-precise formations, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) awarded a Phase II $400,000 grant to the Bae Institute, Tustin, CA. This follows a NIAC $75,000 Phase I grant last March that enabled the Bae Institute to research and present the viability of the photon thrusters and tethers to control formations of spacecraft.

In Phase II, the Bae Institute will demonstrate the photon thruster/tether (push/pull) control and system stability in a vacuum chamber with off-the-shelf components. Photon thrust will be measured, and a means of thrust optimization will be demonstrated. This spacecraft control system holds promise for future low-cost formations of small spacecraft with magnitudes better sensor capability for both earth-based observation and outward-looking space observation applications.

The patent pending PTFF system is projected to accomplish formation flying with less than nanometer accuracy. Bae Institute's objective with NIAC Phase II demonstration funds is to convince the space research community to fund a full-scale working PTFF system. According to Dr. Bae, president of the Bae Institute, "Our PTFF system, while innovative, is based on proven models and off-the-shelf technology. This includes the bouncing of laser photons between spacecraft as a low-overhead, contaminant-free thrust/control network."

The concept of "tethered" or "formation-flying" spacecraft has captured the imagination of scientists worldwide. The benefits of deploying a network of small, inexpensive spacecraft functioning together within a highly sensitive distributed array are tantalizing.

In the U.S., NASA and JPL are actively pursuing such research. The European Space Agency is perhaps further along in its Proba-3 series of missions for validating developments in formation flying of multiple spacecraft. The Chinese, in collaboration with the U.K., have also attempted formation flying of spacecraft. However, controlling such a network to any degree of precision without contamination from propellants has proven illusive.

If successful, NASA deployment of dramatically less-expensive clusters of micro, nano, and pico spacecraft with PTFF will enhance observation resolutions from space a thousand fold, while substantially increasing space mission longevity and options. As a result of PTFF, thrust-power requirements for a wide range of spacecraft configurations are well within today's space power budgets. No other propellants are needed, providing mass energy savings, extended spacecraft utility, and contaminant-free operation for missions requiring highly sensitive sensors.

The Bae Institute's formation flying control includes applications for precise geophysical monitoring, including environmental monitoring, mapping, imaging, surveillance, astronomical, and GPS. Spacecraft clusters in geosynchronous orbit can resolve geophysical detail to within 10 cm while providing real-time data streaming. For astronomical imaging and asteroid warning/exploration applications, PTFF is projected to provide a thousand fold increase in image resolution and scanning accuracy when compared with that of the Hubble Space Telescope at a fraction of the cost. The Bae Institute is currently seeking funding partners to advance development beyond the laboratory subscale demonstration to a flight-ready system prior to commercialization.

Company Background
The Bae Institute was founded in 2002 by Dr. Young K. Bae for the purpose of developing highly innovative space and medical technologies for commercial and government applications. The Bae Institute has been awarded contracts from various government organizations and commercial companies including NASA, U.S. Air Force, and ATK/Mission Research. For more information, contact Dr. Young Bae at Bae Institute, 218 W Main St., Suite 102, Tustin, CA 92780; 714-838-2881, or [email protected]; or go to the institute's Web site.