NASA invests $44M to advance ‘tipping point’ space exploration technologies

NASA invests $44M to advance ‘tipping point’ space exploration technologies

“I’m excited to announce the investment of approximately $44 million in the U.S. space industry through public-private partnerships,” says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
NASA officials in Washington are investing $44 million in total awards to six U.S. companies to advance 10 aerospace technologies at the “tipping point” and with the potential to benefit the commercial space economy and future NASA missions, including lunar lander and deep space rocket engine technologies. A technology is considered at a “tipping point” if investment in a ground or flight demonstration will result in significantly maturing the technology and improving the company’s ability to bring it to market, officials say. 

"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 explains. "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 third such competitive Tipping Point solicitation has a combined total award value of approximately $44 million and targets three Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) strategic technology focus areas: Expand Utilization of Space, Enable Efficient and Safe Transportation Into and Through Space, and Increase Access to Planetary Surfaces.

Blue Origin is one of six companies selected for NASA’s Tipping Point solicitation. Pictured here, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket lifted off July 18 carrying five NASA-supported technologies to flight test in space. Credits: Courtesy of Blue Origin
Blue Origin is one of six companies selected for NASA’s Tipping Point solicitation. Pictured here, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket lifted off July 18 carrying five NASA-supported technologies to flight test in space. (Image courtesy Blue Origin)
 
The selected proposals, organized by strategic technology focus area, follow.
 
Expand Utilization of Space
  • Blue Origin, L.L.C., in Kent, Washington, $10 million
    Proposal: 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 Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle.
  • Space Systems/Loral, L.L.C., (SSL) in Palo Alto, California, $2 million
    Proposal: 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, L.L.C. (ULA) in Centennial, Colorado, $10 million
    Proposal: 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 Corporation in Simi Valley, California, $1.9 million
    Proposal: Flight Qualification of the DSE, MON-25 MMH Rocket Engine
    This project will advance Frontier’s Deep Space Engine (DSE) 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 in Tucson, Arizona, $1.6 million
    Proposal: Cryogenic Encapsulating Launch Shroud and Insulated Upper Stage (CELSIUS)
    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. 
  • SSL, $2 million
    Proposal: 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 (PPU) 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.
  • ULA, $2 million
    Proposal: 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, Inc., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, $10 million
    Proposal: 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 (TRN) 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
    Proposal: 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 (TRN), navigation doppler lidar, and altimetry sensors and conduct flight tests prior to lunar mission implementation. Testing will be performed at approximately 100 km altitude on board the Blue Origin New Shepard vertical takeoff vertical landing (VTVL) suborbital vehicle. The resulting sensor suite will enable precision landing anywhere on the lunar surface. 
  • ULA, $1.9 million
    Proposal: Mid-Air Retrieval (MAR) Demonstration
    This project will flight demonstrate mid-air retrieval capabilities 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 mid-air retrieval on a vehicle returning to Earth from orbital velocity. The project will utilize an ocean-going ship capable of transporting a helicopter to the recovery zone and the demonstration will conclude with recovery of the LOFTID reentry vehicle.

Through firm-fixed-price contracts, STMD will make milestone payments that cover as much as $10 million per award, over a performance period of up to 36 months. Each industry partner is required to contribute a minimum of 25 percent of total cost for each project.

STMD is responsible for developing the crosscutting, pioneering technologies and capabilities needed to achieve NASA missions. Projects resulting from the Tipping Point solicitation will enable public-private partnerships managed by programs within STMD.

“Space Technology Research, Development, Demonstration, and Infusion-2018 (SpaceTech-REDDI-2018)” is NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD) umbrella solicitation that includes the following STMD programs:
  • NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC),
  • Space Technology Research Grants (STRG),
  • Game Changing Development (GCD),
  • Small Spacecraft Technology (SST),
  • Technology Demonstration Missions (TDM), and
  • Flight Opportunities (FO).
 
The Space Technology portfolio supports a combination of early stage studies, for assessing the feasibility of new technologies (which corresponds to a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) range from 1 to 3); maturing feasible technologies through rapid competitive development and ground-based testing (TRL 3-5); and flight demonstrations in a relevant environment to complete the final step to mission infusion (TRL 5-7).
 
STMD seeks aggressive technology development efforts that may require undertaking significant technical challenges and risk to achieve a higher potential payoff. The focus of this solicitation is to identify the best ideas and talents from all sectors of the aerospace enterprise to solve future technology needs while maximizing the value of the Nation’s investment. Investing in space technology invests in the future of NASA, the U.S. space program, and the Nation.
 
With the “Utilizing Public-Private Partnerships to Advance Tipping Point Technologies” Appendix to the SpaceTech-REDDI-2018 NASA Research Announcement (NRA), NASA continues to embrace public-private partnerships to achieve its strategic goals for expanding capabilities and opportunities in space. A key aspect of NASA’s strategy is to stimulate the commercial space industry while leveraging those same commercial capabilities through public-private partnerships to deliver technologies and capabilities needed for future NASA, other government agency, and commercial missions.
 
Recent market research activities indicate that the U.S. commercial space sector offers promising “tipping point” technologies with commercialization potential that align with NASA’s goals and objectives. With this Appendix, NASA is seeking commercial space technologies that are at a “tipping point” in their development.
 
A space technology is at a tipping point if:
  • An investment in a ground demonstration or flight demonstration will result in: a significant advancement of the technology’s maturation, and a significant improvement in the offerors’ ability to successfully bring the technology to market; and,
  • Previous investments have been made to mature the technology (e.g., venture capital, corporate investment, etc.) in preparation for commercialization, demonstrating a pre-existing plan to commercialize the technology; and,
  • The technology is at a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of at least 4 at time of submission of the preliminary proposal.

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Courtney E. Howard is editorial director and content strategist at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group. Contact her by e-mail at courtney.howard@sae.org

 NASA officials in Washington are investing $44 million in total awards to six U.S. companies to advance 10 aerospace technologies at the “tipping point” and with the potential to benefit the commercial space economy and future NASA missions, including lunar lander and deep space rocket engine technologies. A technology is considered at a “tipping point” if investment in a ground or flight demonstration will result in significantly maturing the technology and improving the company’s ability to bring it to market, officials say.
 
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