In four years time, NASA plans to bring astronauts back to the moon as part of the Artemis project. To ensure the success of this venture and the creation of a sustainable lunar exploration program by the end of the decade, NASA has worked with several companies in the commercial space sector. They recently announced that 14 more companies would be engaged to develop a number of proposed technologies.
These proposals are part of NASA's fifth competitive tipping point tender, one of many private-public partnership programs overseen by NASA's Directorate for Space Technology Mission (STMD). For that latest call, tipping point awards contracts valued at over $ 370 million for technology demonstrations that will facilitate future lunar missions and commercial space capabilities.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the selection on Wednesday, October 14, during a keynote address at the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium meeting in the virtual fall. As he explained in the course of the speech, the 14 companies selected by Tipping Point will award fixed-price contracts with a term of up to five years for the development of technology demonstrations.
NASA is investing in long-term cryogenic liquid management technologies to bring astronauts back to the moon and stay there. Photo credit: NASA
In addition to the prize money, the selected companies can also work with NASA's various centers to mature their technology demonstrations. As Bridenstine said in a recent NASA statement:
"NASA's significant investment in innovative technology demonstrations, led by US companies large and small in nine states, will expand opportunities in space and on the lunar surface. Together, NASA and industry are building a range of mission-ready capabilities to support a sustainable presence on the moon and future human missions to Mars. "
The technology demonstrations are divided into three categories depending on the field of study. These include Cryogenic liquid managementThis refers to technologies that prevent fuel from being lost through evaporation (also known as "boil-off") and ensure that the moon ice samples remain stable. Such technologies are essential to establish a sustainable presence on the moon and to enable crewed missions to Mars.
Within this category, four companies received contracts and awards totaling over $ 256 million. Florida-based Eta Space received $ 27 million for a small-scale demonstration of a complete cryogenic liquid oxygen (LOX) management system. This system will be the main payload of a Rocket Lab Photon satellite and will spend nine months in space collecting critical data related to cryogenic liquid management.
Major aerospace and longtime NASA contractor Lockheed Martin received $ 89.7 million for a demonstration mission in space that tested more than a dozen cryogenic liquid management systems. Similarly, the Space Space titan SpaceX will receive $ 53.2 million for a large-scale flight demonstration that will transfer 10 tons of LOX between tanks in one of their Starship vehicles.
Artist concept of the SpaceX spaceship on the surface of the moon. Credits: SpaceX
Ultimately, the major contractor United Launch Alliance (ULA) will receive $ 86.2 million to demonstrate its intelligent cryogenic propulsion system. This system will be integrated into the upper stage of Vulcan Centaur missiles in the future, is based on a combination of LOX and liquid hydrogen and performs various tests (e.g. pressure regulation, tank-to-tank transfer and long-term fuel storage test).
For the second category Initiative for the innovation of the lunar surfaceNASA awards over $ 100 million in contracts for technologies that advance In Situ Resource Use (ISRU). This includes applications that can provide surface energy generation, energy storage, communication, and other functions that are critical to meeting the basic needs of crews and making it easier for humans and robots to explore the moon.
Among the ten recipients are robotics developers such as Alpha Space Test and Research Alliance, who received $ 22.1 million for their space science and technology assessment facility that gives small-scale experiments access to the lunar environment. Similarly, Intuitive Machines received $ 41.6 million to develop a hopper lander that can carry 1 kg payloads for distances greater than 2.5 km (1.5 mi).
Mojave's Masten Space Systems received $ 2.8 million to build and demonstrate a universal chemical source of heat and power that can operate in extreme lunar night temperatures and in craters. And SSL Robotics (a subsidiary of Maxar Technologies) received $ 8.7 million to develop a robotic arm for lunar surface applications, in-orbit maintenance, and terrestrial defense.
Artist's impression of astronauts exploring a lunar crater. Photo credit: NASA
In terms of power generation and storage, Astrobotic Technology received $ 5.8 million for a wireless charging system for commercial robotic landers. Ohio-based pH Matter received $ 3.4 million for its reversible, regenerative fuel cell, which can generate and store electricity on the lunar surface. and Nokia of America received $ 14.1 million to develop the first LTE / 4G lunar communications system.
For fuel systems, Precision Combustion Inc. received $ 2.4 million for a solid oxide fuel cell stack that generates power from methane and oxygen propellants and other in-situ resources. Sierra Nevada Corporation (maker of Dream Chaser Spacepalen) also received $ 2.4 million to develop a system that uses methane and concentrated solar energy to extract oxygen from the moon's regolith.
And Teledyne Energy Systems received $ 2.8 million to develop an advanced hydrogen electrical system that could result in fuel cells with a life of 10,000 hours. Under the terms of the contract, Teledyne will send a key element of the system (water separator) on a parabolic flight to assess how it performs under different degrees of gravity – with special attention to the effects of microgravity.
Third, there were the contracts that fell within Closed loop descent and landing ability Category dedicated to the development of integrated precision landing and hazard avoidance technologies. Only one order was awarded to masts (US $ 10 million) for its Xogdor vehicle, which will offer suborbital flights at altitudes of over 100 km for testing space technologies.
In addition to the prize money, each of these 14 companies is tasked with contributing a minimum percentage of the total project cost (based on its size). Jim Reuter, NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Technology, said:
“These are the most important proposals NASA has selected at one time, and by far the greatest collective value. We are pleased that our investments and collaborative partnerships are creating new technologies for the moon and beyond, while benefiting the commercial sector. "
Ultimately, the bulk of the funding for this tipping point call will go towards developing cryogenic liquid management systems, ranging from small to large and short to long term tests. This shows the importance of NASA and other space agencies' ability to produce fuel from ice harvested in the polar regions of the moon.
The ability to break down water molecules to create liquid oxygen (LOX) and hydrogen fuel, store them for extended periods of time at cryogenic temperatures, and transfer them from one tank to another is critical to creating sustainable operations on the moon. In addition to infrastructures such as the Lunar Gateway, Artemis Base Camp, and other proposed surface facilities, they will also facilitate crewed missions to Mars.
Further reading: NASA, NASA (2)