USAF Research Labs Say Modular Propulsion Offers Strategic Space Advantages

Written by staff writer.

A top official at the United States Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) says modular propulsion technologies are one of the keys to staying ahead of increasingly technologically advanced competitors.

Speaking at the 2023 Space Symposium in Colorado this week, Andrew Williams, Deputy Technology Executive Officer for Space for the USAF Research Laboratory, said the work underway there included focusing on smaller systems proliferated pieces and maneuver pieces.

“We’re trying to see what that next generation of technology looks like,” he said. “We’re focused on the maneuver piece, and I say maneuver specifically, and not just refuelling, because we’re evaluating things beyond fluid transfer and refuelling.”

“It’s clear that we are in an era where strategic competition is key with the PRC and with Russia. And that space is a key element of that. The key differentiator from some of the past environments is that the competitors are technologically advanced, making science and technology key. The Air Force Research Lab is focused on going after those wicked hard problems.”

Williams was speaking at an event at the symposium explaining how US military research institutions are investing in emerging technologies to maintain a strategic military advantage in space. The AFRL was set up in 1997 to advance US warfighter technologies and execute the USAF’s science and technology program. Twenty-five years later, it is increasingly involved in cyberspace and space.

“There are going to be cases where air solves space problems, space solves air problems, and the only way that we’re going to get after this challenge is if we do true multi-integration across the space and air domains,” Williams explained.

He used examples of the maneuver piece and purpose-built architecture that will meet the needs of the USAF and US Space Command. “What we’re examining are things like modular propulsion,” Williams said. “We don’t want to be locked into a specific fuel economy if we’re doing fluid transfers. If that’s the only way we’re looking at maneuver, then more than likely, we are going to be stuck in a hydrazine economy for 20 years, and that’s not where we want to be.”

Williams also spoke about the work the AFRL was doing around modular propulsion. “If it’s hydrazine today, but it’s a green propellant in the future, or if it’s a nuclear pace, a nuclear propulsion-based option, we can change that out.

“A modular approach allows us to look at how we change out propulsion systems, and that allows us to change out a lot of other things too, like electronics boxes and sensor packages.

“The other piece of it that we’re looking at is the use of green propellant in servicing as well as using it as a multimode propulsion. Using a single propellant allows you to do both chemical propulsion as well as electrical propulsion on the fly, giving you a lot of strategic advantages.”

Williams said this kind of work contributed to meeting the future architectural requirements of both the US Space Force and USAF. He said there was a strong focus at the AFRL on providing resilient capabilities to US terrestrial warfighters and space operators and ensuring that the US maintains its strategic advantages in both domains.


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