Solar electric propulsion was a key enabling technology for NASA’s now-abandoned plan to relocate part of an asteroid to cislunar orbit. Credit: NASA/artist's concept

WASHINGTON — The Air Force Small Business Innovation Research program has released a new list of topics for companies to submit proposals. On the wish list for the next round of SBIR bids are technologies for operations far beyond geosynchronous Earth orbit, near the moon’s orbit.

Cislunar operations is one of three space-focused areas in the SBIR pre-solicitation notice released Dec. 10 by the Air Force technology accelerator known as AFWERX. Proposals are due Feb. 12. The full list includes 19 topics.

“As the space beyond geosynchronous orbit becomes more crowded and competitive, it is important for the Air Force to extend its space domain awareness responsibilities to include this new regime,” says the pre-solicitation. “The Air Force is seeking commercial innovation in support of space domain awareness for future cislunar operations.”

Specific items the Air Force wants: payloads for providing space domain awareness from the lunar surface, lightweight sensors for space-based space domain awareness, and methodologies for orbit determination and catalog maintenance in cislunar space.

The Air Force also is interested in concepts for providing position, navigation and timing solutions for cislunar space operations; visualization of cislunar orbits; and terrestrial-based concepts for achieving space domain awareness of cislunar space.”

The inclusion of cislunar space capabilities in the SBIR program was unexpected, said Shawn Usman, an astrophysicist and founder of the space consulting firm Rhea Space Activity.

The industry sees this as a sign that the Air Force, and the future Space Force, are responding to advances made by China, Usman told SpaceNews. “This is definitely a pretty big turning point for the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. ‘new space’ industry, our near-peer competitors, and for the upcoming Space Force.”

Other space priorities

The Air Force is seeking technologies to improve the performance of small satellites, according to the pre-solicitation.

Small satellites are valuable to the military because they can be manufactured and launched quickly. But the performance of components and buses needs to be higher, says the AFWERX pre-solicitation. One goal is to reduce integration and assembly time, and improve the manufacturability of components, buses and payloads.

The Air Force wants compact, high power energy generation and storage concepts; on-board processing; broadband communication antennas and software defined radios; advanced attitude control sensors; thermal control systems; advanced manufacturing technologies; propulsion concepts supporting green fuels; low-cost, mass-producible payloads; and modular, open source flight software and cyber security technologies.

The third space-related topic on the list is “ubiquitous satellite command, control and operations.”

A hybrid architecture of GEO spacecraft, distributed small satellites networks in multiple orbits “creates a complex command and control challenge for future Air Force missions,” says AFWERX. “As these networks grow, traditional human-in-the-loop operations becomes cumbersome, if not impossible. We are seeking technologies that enable rapid, ubiquitous command and control of satellite constellations that also support rapid operator decision making.”

The Air Force seeks technologies to re-configure a distributed satellite network and to manage multiple sources of data autonomously.

SBIR process changed

AFWERX started the SBIR “Open Topics” program in 2017 to help attract nontraditional companies. Compared to the traditional SBIR process, AFWERX has a shorter application process and rewards companies that bring matching funds from private investors or other government organizations.

The Air Force in August announced modifications to the SBIR process to increase the outreach to non-traditional companies.

Under the Open Topics process, the Air Force gives bidders more flexibility to pitch broad ideas rather than require specific solutions to particular problems. A second major difference is the number of awards given. A traditional SBIR topic gives two or three Phase 1 awards for research and development, whereas the “Open Topic” awards as many as 300 Phase 1 contracts. The third major difference is an emphasis on adapting non-defense commercial technologies to meet specific Air Force needs.

AFWERX encourages organizations across the Air Force to find companies that offer useful technology and submit a “memorandum of understanding” on behalf of that company, which would help the firm win a Phase 2 award.

In the Open Topics SBIR, the Air Force offers two-to-one fund matching from the SBIR budget up to $1.5 million if the company has never received a Phase 2 award before. So if a company gets $750,000 from a private investor or another government program, AFWERX SBIR would provide $1.5 million.

The holy grail for companies in the SBIR program is a Phase 3 award, which is a sole-source contract to procure the product that the company designed and prototyped with Phase 1 and Phase 2 funding.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...