SAN FRANCISCO – Agile Space Industries, a Durango, Colorado company focused on in-space chemical propulsion, is additively manufacturing thrusters for robotic lunar landers being built by Astrobotic Technology, ispace and Masten Space Systems.
Specifically, Agile is manufacturing attitude control thrusters for Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander. For Tokyo-based ispace’s Series 2 lunar landers, Agile is supplying thrusters for both attitude and axial control. Masten is buying Agile’s axial control thrusters.
In recent years, the vast majority of propulsion work has focuses on launch vehicles. As NASA and commercial companies prepare to send a series of robotic spacecraft to the moon ahead of Artemis missions to transport astronauts, in-space propulsion is attracting renewed attention and funding.
That’s good news for Agile, a company with 55 employees that specializes in custom-built propulsion systems for government and commercial customers.
“We can do designs that weren’t possible in normal kinds of machining and manufacturing technologies,” Jeff Max, Agile CEO and co-founder, told SpaceNews. “It also allows us to work with materials which may not have been used historically in propulsion cases and to deliver engines at vastly lower mass because we’re only laying down as much material as the design needs in order to operate.”
In addition to operating its own additive manufacturing facility, Agile has extensive testing infrastructure.
“We are able to replicate the vacuum of space and the temperatures of space, so that we can test these engines on the ground in their lunar operating environment,” Max said.
Agile has been designing, developing and testing propulsion technology for government agencies and prime contractors since the company was established in 2009. The first space-based demonstration of Agile’s technology is slated for late 2023 on Astrobotic’s Griffin lander.
NASA awarded Astrobotic a $199.5 million task order under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract to deliver a water-prospecting mission, Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, to the lunar south pole on the Griffin lander.
A dispute earlier this year that prompted Agile to file a lawsuit against Masten for nonpayment has been resolved.
“Sometimes these things happen in business,” Max said. “You resolve them and move on. In this case, we’ve moved on in a collaborative way.”
Agile has kept a low profile in recent years, rarely disclosing individual contract awards. The company is now revealing a trio of lunar lander propulsion contracts because much of the work has been completed and engine delivery is on the horizon.
Agile executives declined to specify materials used for each propulsion system. In general, the company is working with pure nickel, nickel alloys, niobium C-103 and cobalt chrome.
“We’re leveraging a broad range of materials based on what’s optimal for a specific engine,” Max said. “An engine that requires many long burns over a lifetime sends us in a different direction than a thruster that needs to fire five times for 90 seconds each time.”