SAN FRANCISCO – The fourth phase was awarded a contract by the Agency for Advanced Defense Research Projects to demonstrate the technology of the radio frequency engine of a California startup with new fuel.
“We are working with DARPA to explore how we can apply our engine to use low-cost, small-sized, weight and fuel power to further develop mass-produced satellites and larger constellations,” said Jason Wallace, vice president of Phase Four Advanced development, told SpaceNews.
Under DARPA’s annual contract announced Feb. 16, Phase Four is developing a new prototype of a small satellite radio frequency engine that the company plans to demonstrate in a vacuum chamber. Phase four does not disclose the cost of the contract or the specific fuel under consideration.
Phase four proved last year that its Maxwell Block 1 engine is xenon-fueled executed by design in orbit. Maxwell Block 1 currently provides traction for six small satellites. Four more are scheduled to launch by the end of the year.
Since the company’s founding in 2015, Phase Four has tested engines with a range of different fuels, including air, water, iodine and Advanced spacecraft Energy non-toxicor ASCENT, a green fuel developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.
With each new unit, the fourth phase is tested to compare its performance with xenon radio frequency motors. The company then modifies both the steering gear and the feed system to optimize performance, ”Wallace said. “There are some changes for each fuel and of course some unique characteristics depending on the type of fuel.” (Phase 4 hand tools are designed for gas, liquid and solid fuels.)
Each fuel offers different benefits to satellite operators. Iodine, for example, sells for about one-tenth the price of xenon.
“For customers who intend to optimize the performance of an electric motor, iodine basically provides the same performance as xenon at a much lower price,” Wallace said.
In addition, the fourth phase explores fuel that can be obtained in orbit, on planetary bodies or from other rocket engines.
“We are looking at how we can apply the unique technology that Phase Four has to enable different applications and adapt it to the needs of our satellite operators,” Wallace said.
Phase four plans to begin shipping second-generation engines, Maxwell block 2 in June.
Unit 2 is designed to accommodate different sizes of fuel tanks. “It’s more modular in nature and more flexible for our commercial customers,” Wallace said.
https://spacenews.com/phase-four-darpa-contract/ Phase four wins DARPA’s contract to test the new fuel