AFRL Grants Benchmark Space Systems Funding for ASCENT Thrusters Development

Benchmark Space Systems has been awarded a two-year, $2.81 million AFRL SPRINT (Space Propulsion Research and Innovation for Neutralizing Satellite Threats) award to develop and test flight-optimized thrusters running on ASCENT (Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-Toxic) fuel. This award is aimed at helping U.S. defense agencies deploy safer propellant alternatives to hydrazine.

This is the second SPRINT award that Benchmark has received in two years. The company previously demonstrated a prototype thruster burning the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) developed ASCENT monopropellant without the use of a catalyst bed. These successful trials have paved the way for ASCENT to be considered as an affordable and viable alternative for various on-orbit mobility and tactical missions in space.

As part of the new AFRL-funded program, Benchmark will build a flight-like 22 Newton thruster to perform advanced ASCENT hot-fire demonstrations. Additionally, the company will deliver a preliminary design of a larger 100 Newton thruster assembly in 2025 to meet the demand for scaled ASCENT-fueled spacecraft in the 10-500 Newton range.

©Benchmark Space Systems

Benchmark has also established its Advanced Propellants Group, led by Director Michael Martin, PhD. This team will focus on exploring and testing a range of greener propellants for Benchmark’s non-toxic chemical, electric, and hybrid propulsion systems. The group will continue to screen and solve propellant challenges, including those posed by LMP-103, nitrous oxide, water, and other promising propellants for specific mission types.

According to Jake Teufert, Benchmark Space Systems Chief Technology Officer, the ASCENT thruster technology developed by the company provides the high-thrust scalability needed to make ASCENT a viable propellant for the Department of Defense’s current and future dynamic space operations. The prototype development and testing under the SPRINT program will enable the refinement and scale of storable monopropellant systems and operations to support rapid deployment defense missions.

Michael Martin, PhD and Director of Benchmark’s Advanced Propellants Group, emphasized that Benchmark’s expertise in non-toxic propulsion systems and testing positions the company to provide thrust to a wide range of government and commercial spacecraft. The company aims to explore other underutilized and promising green chemical, electric, and hybrid technologies to power the space economy.

In addition to their work with AFRL, Benchmark Space Systems collaborates with the U.S. Government to thoroughly vet the safety and optimize the performance of propellants for use in space. The company’s propellant innovations include high-test peroxide (HTP) bi-propellant for its Halcyon product line, inert non-toxic powder for its Starling systems, and domestically sourced metals for its Electric Propulsion offerings.

Overall, Benchmark Space Systems is dedicated to advancing the development of safer and more efficient propellants for space missions, contributing to the growth of the space industry.