Cubesats are the ultimate in miniature spacecraft, tiny orbiters that can be launched by the dozen as piggyback payloads at prices that bring them within reach of undergraduate engineering classes and even high schools. But when they run out of power, they are really just space debris. Now NASA is looking for ways to bring them back into the atmosphere before they smash into more valuable spacecraft.

The Swedish Space Corp. (SSC) believes it has an answer, and it is following a trend in trying to globalize its technology by selling it in the biggest space market in the world. As the name suggests, SSC is one of the crown jewels in Sweden's space-technology industry. Based in a Stockholm suburb, the company and its subsidiaries have built world-class satellites for the European Space Agency and developed niche technologies that could play right into NASA's search.

SSC's NanoSpace unit has developed miniaturized spacecraft thrusters using Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) fabrication technology. The tiny thruster systems have been partially validated in space, on the Prisma satellites that also proved out the non-hypergolic green propellant developed by another SSC subsidiary (AW&ST Nov. 1, 2010, p. 69). They would seem to be a logical line of pursuit for NASA, which posted a request for information on its procurement website April 23 on ways to hold the risk of collisions between spent cubesats and other orbiting objects to less than 1 in 1,000.

“NanoSpace is indeed interested but needs to partner with a U.S. company or institution to be able to respond,” says SSC Executive Anne Ytterskog.

The Swedish company is a subcontractor on NASA's call for green alternatives to hydrazine and other toxic hypergolic propellants for spacecraft. SSC's Ecological Advanced Propulsion Systems (Ecaps) division has partnered with a U.S. prime to propose the ammonium dinitramide-based propellant LMP-103S that it validated in tests on the Prisma mission.

“There are a lot of barriers that we need to overcome,” Stefan Gardefjord, SSC's new president and CEO, told Aviation Week at the recent National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

Beyond heritage and financial barriers, the Ecaps unit will also have to deal with U.S. federal regulations on doing business with foreign space companies. NASA stipulates that while it welcomes foreign technology, it will not fund offshore research and will select non-U.S. companies only if a “no-exchange-of-funds” agreement can be reached. Partnering with U.S. companies is a way around that prohibition, and it is followed by overseas companies trying to market space technologies in the U.S. government marketplace.

For civil space, one of the most prominent examples of this approach is the teaming arrangement between Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and Europe's Astrium to launch astronauts on a Franco-American rocket dubbed Liberty. The proposed vehicle marries a five-segment version of the four-segment solid-fuel strap-on boosters ATK built for NASA's space shuttles with the Ariane V main stage, which would become the upper stage for Liberty (see illustration). A key element of the Liberty design is the Vulcain main-stage engine for Ariane V, built by French engine maker Safran.

“We are pushing in favor of Liberty,” says Jean-Lin Fournereaux, Safran deputy COO and corporate senior vice president for space. “This project is a very smart project, low-risk, low-cost, using almost-on-the-shelf products that were designed with human-rating specification in mind.”

In the Liberty configuration, the Vulcain engine must start at altitude instead of sea level. Safran plans to qualify it for vacuum start at one of the NASA test stands that can accommodate such a large engine. Fournereaux says Safran does not expect any major problems with the testing because his company has applied its long experience with vacuum start in preparing ignition models for the Vulcain. Nor does he anticipate difficulties working with ATK.

“Based on what we are doing with the jet-engine side with General Electric through the joint venture CFM International, we think that it's really manageable,” Fournereaux says.

Safran has doubled its U.S. operations in the past three years, to almost 7,000 employees from 3,000 working in 22 states and 58 locations. “Even American companies run into a buy-American problem, because the supply chain is global,” says President/CEO Peter Nicholas Lengyel, noting that Safran USA also plans “to market ammonium perchlorate and other 'energetic materials,'” through its newly formed Herakles unit.