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NASA Advances Public-Private Partnerships to Support Tipping Point Technologies

In August 2016, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) issued a solicitation titled Utilizing Public-Private Partnerships to Advance Tipping Point Technologies. This solicitation provided opportunities for aerospace companies to receive awards for developing “tipping point” technologies.

“The first awards showed us how much the commercial space sector is ready to collaborate with us on developing capabilities that align with their business plans and meet NASA’s strategic goals,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for STMD.

The aerospace companies selected for these awards are required to make investments in their respective tipping point technologies in order to receive this award. The technology is regarded as being at a tipping point if an investment in a demonstration of its capabilities will result in a significant advancement of the technology’s maturation, a higher likelihood of infusion into a commercial space application, and a significant improvement in the partner’s ability to successfully bring the technology to market.

Awards Made To Companies in Two Categories

NASA’s STMD awarded contracts to companies in two categories: Small Launch Vehicle Technology, which enables the use of small spacecraft for technology development, science missions and to support deep space human exploration, and Small Spacecraft Capability Demonstration Missions, which supports the demonstration of new spacecraft through flight demonstrations with aggressive schedules and cost targets.

Small Launch Vehicles Technology

Most of the companies in the Small Launch Vehicle Technology Development aim to improve the technology used to launch CubeSats like this one. Image credit CubeSat.org
Most of the companies in the Small Launch Vehicle Technology Development aim to improve the technology used to launch CubeSats like this one. Image credit CubeSat.org

Awardees in the Small Launch Vehicles Technology include Masten Space Systems, Inc., Ventions, LLC, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc., HRL Laboratories, LLC, UP Aerospace, Inc., and Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles.

  • Masten Space Systems is currently developing a 25,000lpf liquid oxygen/methane engine called Broadsword, which will be capable of serving the growing small satellite and CubeSat market. This engine features advanced manufacturing techniques and will be part of a lower-cost reusable launch system.
  • Ventions, LLC, will further development and flight-testing of a two-stage, high-performance electric pump-fed launch vehicle that will be capable of on-demand ground launch of small payloads to low Earth orbit.
  • Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc. is developing a micro-avionics multi-purpose platform that will be capable of supporting launch vehicles and nanosatellites and creating a real-time system capable of simulating launch scenarios. The award from STMD will help fund three test flights to demonstrate the micro-avionics platform.
  • HRL Laboratories aims to apply additive manufacturing technology to the manufacture of high-temperature materials applicable to rocket engine components. HRL Laboratories is currently working with its sub-contractor, Vector Space Systems, to mature the technology with the end result of a hot-fire test of a high performance liquid oxygen/propylene rocket engine. If successful, the new manufacturing techniques will be applicable of rocket engines of all sizes.
  • UP Aerospace, Inc. will conduct a suborbital mission to flight test several subsystems for a launch vehicle currently under development. The subsystems include a Guidance, Navigation & Control (GN&C) system, nose-fairing separation system, and lightweight staging system. In addition, a ground test will be conducted for the Stage 1 rocket engine. The launch vehicle will be capable of launching small nanosatellites to low-Earth orbit.
  • Orbital Sciences Corporation will incorporate advanced materials for dampening into flight structures to reduce dynamic loads during flight. They will build sub-scale and full-scale flight structures and complete end-to-end ground and flight testing. If successful, this technology has the potential to increase the payload capability and reduce costs for launch vehicles.

Small Spacecraft Capability Demonstration Missions

NASA’s STMD has granted awards to two companies in the Small Spacecraft Capability Demonstration Mission category: Trans Astronautica Corporation and ExoTerra Resource.

  • Trans Astronautica Corporation is testing a ground control system called Theia, which will enhance space situational awareness capacities. The suborbital test flight of Theia will test a system that is capable of detecting near-Earth asteroids and orbital debris through a new technique that helps detect small, fast-moving objects that are dimly lit. Working with Deep Space Industries of Moffett Field, California, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Trans Astronautica will test a synthetic tracking system that detects objects streaking though its field of view and then, working in a way analogous to HDR imagery, builds a composite image of the object.
  • ExoTerra Resource plans to demonstrate a 300-Watt CubeSat Solar Electric Propulsion system that can improve the propulsion capacity of secondary payloads like small satellites, which must often sacrifice propulsion capacity in order to “hitch a ride” on the same rocket as the primary payload. The solar electric propulsion system makes use of iodine, a less risky inert solid that can be vaporized into an ionized gas, in the place of xenon gas. ExoTerra’s demonstration mission will attempt a flyby of a near-Earth asteroid with an instrumentation payload provided by Deep Space Industries of Moffett Field, California.

These fixed-priced contracts include milestone payments tied to technical progress and require a minimum 25 percent industry contribution, though all awards are contingent on the availability of appropriated funding. The contracts are worth a combined total of approximately $17 million, and each have an approximate two-year performance period culminating in a small spacecraft orbital demonstration mission or the maturation of small launch vehicle technologies.

These awards are funded by STMD, which is responsible for developing the cross-cutting, pioneering, new technologies and capabilities needed by the agency to achieve its current and future missions.

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About Heidi Hecht

Heidi Hecht is a space geek, freelance content writer and owner of the Nothing in Particular Blog. She is also a published author with a new book, "Blockchain Space: How And Why Cryptocurrencies Fit Into The Space Age", now available on Amazon and Google Play.

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