NASA is awarding $44 million to six commercial partners to support “tipping-point” technologies that range from lunar landing capabilities to in-space refueling and spacecraft servicing.
Blue Origin, the space venture that was founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and is headquartered in Kent, Wash., will receive $13 million to support its Blue Moon lunar lander program. The targeted technologies are to be demonstrated during flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship.
Today’s award announcement comes months after NASA’s third round of solicitations for ground or flight demonstrations that could lead to tipping points in the development and commercialization of space exploration technologies.
“These awards focus on technology collaborations with the commercial space sector that leverage emerging markets and capabilities to meet NASA’s exploration goals,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a news release. “While these key technologies will support NASA’s science and human exploration missions in the future, these awards are yet another example of NASA’s commitment to our nation’s growing commercial space industry today.”
NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate targeted three tech frontiers for the latest tipping-point awards. Here’s how the selections break down by category:
Expand utilization of space:
- Blue Origin, Kent, Wash., $10 million: Cryogenic Fluid Management-Enhanced Integrated Propulsion Testing for Robust Lander Services. Blue Origin will mature cryogenic liquid propulsion through a combination of technologies in a lunar lander-scaled integrated propulsion system. The project will culminate in testing of the integrated propulsion system and a separate experiment on New Shepard.
- Space Systems/Loral, Palo Alto, Calif., $2 million: In-Space Xenon Transfer for Satellite, Servicer and Exploration Vehicle Replenishment and Life Extension. This project will advance satellite servicing and in-space platform propellant replenishment capabilities by developing the capability to transfer xenon in space from a servicer or tanker to an active, operational satellite. The incremental addition of xenon transfer to existing robotic refueling payload opens new refueling opportunities. The project will demonstrate that in-space xenon transfer can be performed reliably in space.
- United Launch Alliance, Centennial, Colo., $10 million: Integrated Vehicle Fluids Flight Demonstration. An Integrated Vehicle Fluids (IVF) system supports extended-duration cryogenic upper stage operations and has applications for lunar landers. It takes advantage of available liquid hydrogen and oxygen to provide multiple kilowatts of power while potentially eliminating battery power, helium pressurization, and the hydrazine reaction control system. This effort includes qualification of key elements of the IVF subsystem and integration and flight on a Centaur upper stage.
Enable efficient and safe transportation Into and through space:
- Frontier Aerospace Corp., Simi Valley, Calif., $1.9 million: Flight Qualification of the DSE, MON-25 MMH Rocket Engine. This project will advance Frontier’s Deep Space Engine by flight demonstration as part of the first Astrobotic Peregrine lunar lander mission planned for 2020. The DSE engine uses a propellant that has a lower freezing point, which provides benefits for exploration landers and deep-space missions by lowering system weight and required power.
- Paragon Space Development Corporation, Tucson, Ariz., $1.6 million: Cryogenic Encapsulating Launch Shroud and Insulated Upper Stage. CELSIUS is a system that can be installed on the surface of the cryogenic upper stage tank of a space launch vehicle to provide enhanced insulation capabilities and protection from meteoroids and debris.
- Space Systems/Loral, $2 million: High Efficiency 6kW Dual Mode Electric Propulsion Engine for Broad Mission Applications. This project will expand SSL’s electric propulsion capabilities by developing a selectable “dual mode” power processing unit capable of providing 300 or 600 volts to a 6-kilowatt Hall thruster, increasing overall mission efficiency and flexibility. This provides faster, more efficient, propulsive capabilities for future NASA missions.
- United Launch Alliance, $2 million: Cryogenic Fluid Management Technology Demonstration. This cryogenic fluid management (CFM) demonstration project seeks to prove that very low cryogenic fuel boil off is achievable and can support long-duration missions. ULA will perform critical testing of the existing space launch vehicle Centaur Cryote-3 tank.
Increase access to planetary surfaces:
- Astrobotic Technology, Pittsburgh, Penn., $10 million: Stand-Alone Sensor for High Precision Planetary Landing. This project will culminate in a lunar technology demonstration mission, advancing a low-cost, reliable, high-performance, stand-alone Terrain Relative Navigation sensor suite. This lower-mass, lower-power, passive-optical sensor suite is designed to precisely deliver robotic landers to planetary surfaces. Demonstrating these capabilities will allow the team to assist NASA in dramatically improving the performance of lunar and planetary landing missions.
- Blue Origin, $3 million: Advancing Sensor Suites to Enable Landing Anywhere on the Lunar Surface. This project will mature critical technologies that enable precision and soft landing on the moon. The project team will integrate Terrain Relative Navigation, navigation doppler lidar, and altimetry sensors and conduct flight tests prior to lunar mission implementation. Testing will be performed at approximately 100-kilometer altitude onboard New Shepard. The resulting sensor suite will enable precision landing anywhere on the lunar surface.
- United Launch Alliance, $1.9 million: Mid-Air Retrieval Demonstration. This project will flight demonstrate midair retrieval capabilities for payloads weighing up to 8,000 pounds, increasing current capabilities by a factor of four. Paired with the NASA Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) project, this effort will demonstrate midair retrieval on a vehicle returning to Earth from orbital velocity. The project will use an oceangoing ship capable of transporting a helicopter to the recovery zone, and the demonstration will conclude with recovery of the LOFTID re-entry vehicle.
Through firm-fixed-price contracts, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will make milestone payments over a performance period of up to 36 months. Each industry partner is required to contribute a minimum of 25 percent of the total cost for each project. NASA says it could follow up on the projects with more ambitious public-private partnerships.
In May, NASA said Blue Origin would take part in a $10 million public-private program to develop technologies for in-situ resource utilization on the moon or Mars. Blue Origin executives have said the company’s proposed Blue Moon lunar lander could take on its first mission to the moon by 2023 if there’s sufficient support from NASA.