NASA has selected 14 companies for contracts of over $ 370 million to advance technology for human missions to the Moon and Mars. Most of the money will support flight demonstrations from SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and other companies that could lead to space supplies and reusable lunar lander propellant depots and deep space transport vehicles.
Most of the “Tipping Point” awards announced Wednesday will allow NASA to pay companies to perform technology demonstrations in space, following similar awards in previous years that focused on component development and ground testing.
NASA has selected Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX and a small Florida-based company called Eta Space for the highest value awards focused on cryogenic fluid management, capabilities that could lead to the transfer of liquid, methane and liquid hydrogen super cold oxygen propellants between vehicles in space.
About $ 256 million of the $ 372 million in NASA Tipping Point awards will support cryogenic storage and refueling technology. The rest is aimed at developing power, precision landing, communications and other systems to support future missions to the moon’s surface.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Wednesday that NASA aims to promote the development of commercial fueling technology and propellant deposits to support exploration of the moon and ultimately human missions to Mars.
“We have an ambition to get to the moon with the next man and first woman by 2024,” Bridenstine said, referring to the agency’s Artemis program. “We want to be sustainable by 2028. For me, that means we want our human landing systems to be reusable by 2028, which means that to do that we will need to have some 2028 refueling capacity.”
Eventually, the frozen water inside the moon’s polar craters could be harnessed to generate rocket fuel, air, water and other resources. In the short term, propellant storage and refueling technologies will rely on Earth-launched resources.
“Many companies and academic institutions … will find out and of course NASA is ready to be a customer in the future,” Bridenstine said.
The space agency said Wednesday it will begin negotiating with each of Tipping Point’s winners to issue milestone-based fixed-price contracts that last up to five years.
“Many of these different architectures and capabilities will depend on how the private sector innovates,” Bridenstine said at a meeting of the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium. “This is why I think it is important for NASA to collaborate with private industry and academia, because they will come up with exceptionally unique and diverse solutions, and ultimately really drive what ends up being that fuel deposits, whether they find themselves. in orbit around the Earth, whether they are in orbit around the moon. “
Lockheed Martin was selected for a $ 89.7 million contract to perform a demonstration in space using liquid hydrogen to test more than a dozen cryogenic fluid management technologies, positioning them for infusion into future space systems, he said NASA. Liquid hydrogen is the most challenging and most efficient cryogenic propellant to work with in space because it must be kept at temperatures below minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 253 degrees Celsius) to prevent it from converting to a gas and bubbles.
NASA said Lockheed Martin will collaborate on the project with the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Glenn Research Center.
The United Launch Alliance will demonstrate an “intelligent propulsion cryogenic system, using liquid oxygen and hydrogen, on a Vulcan Centaur upper stage,” NASA said. The ULA award is worth $ 86.2 million.
ULA’s next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket will perform its maiden test flight in the second half of 2021.
The company has long promoted deposits of propellants in space and proposed a more advanced upper stage that could carry out missions lasting days or weeks in deep space. The Centaur’s upper stage currently flying on ULA rockets can conduct missions lasting just over six hours.
NASA said the intelligent cryogenic propulsion system “will test precise cylinder pressure control, tank-to-tank transfer and propellant storage for multiple weeks.” Engineers from Marshall, Glenn and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center will work with the ULA on the demonstration.
An award to SpaceX worth $ 53.2 million will go to a “large-scale flight demonstration to transfer 10 metric tons of cryogenic propellant, especially liquid oxygen, between the tanks of a Starship vehicle,” NASA said.
SpaceX’s spacecraft is designed to carry more than 100 metric tons of cargo in low earth orbit. By docking a supply tanker in Earth’s orbit, SpaceX could fill a starship with methane propellants and liquid oxygen to fire towards more distant destinations, such as the Moon or Mars.
SpaceX will partner with Glenn and Marshall on the Starship propellant transfer demo, NASA said.
“When we think of companies like SpaceX and Starship, their architecture is heavily dependent on the ability to transfer cryogenics into low Earth orbit in order to take a system to the moon,” Bridenstine said Wednesday. “Their system, in fact, does not appear to require a fuel deposit around the moon. Their system would require a fuel deposit in orbit around the Earth.”
The SpaceX spaceship is one of three lunar lander concepts selected by NASA in April to transport astronauts to and from the lunar surface. NASA has also selected commercial teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics to work on human landing systems.
A small company called Eta Space in Merritt Island, Florida won a $ 27 million award from NASA for a “small-scale flight demonstration of a complete cryogenic fluid management system,” the space agency said. .
“As proposed, the system will be the primary payload on a Rocket Lab Photon satellite and will collect critical data on the handling of cryogenic fluid in orbit for nine months,” NASA said. “The small business will partner with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.”
Rocket Lab’s Photon space platform is designed to be launched on an Electron rocket. Last month Rocket Lab announced that it has successfully launched the first Photon spacecraft, designed to house Earth observation sensors, communications payload, and scientific experiments in missions to Earth orbit and beyond.
NASA has already entered into a contract with Rocket Lab to fly a small research mission called CAPSTONE orbiting the moon next year using an electronic rocket and a Photon platform.
NASA selected Masten Space Systems to demonstrate precision landing, hazard elimination, and a universal chemical attack for electrical and thermal power sources to help payloads survive the two-week lunar night. The two Masten deals have a cumulative value of $ 12.8 million.
With a prize of $ 41.6 million, Intuitive Machines will develop a deployable hopper lander capable of carrying a 2.2 pound (1 kilogram) payload over 2.5 kilometers to the surface of the moon, enabling exploration. of craters beyond the reach of larger conventional rovers.
Alpha Space Test and Research Alliance of Houston will receive approximately $ 22.1 million from NASA to develop a space science and technology assessment facility to give access to small experiments on the lunar surface, and Maxar Technologies won $ 8.7 million in NASA funding to help develop a lighter and less expensive robotic arm for operations on the lunar surface, in orbit and on Earth.
Nokia will receive a contract with NASA to provide $ 14.1 million to support early-stage research for the first LTE / 4G communications network in space, which NASA says could support long-distance communications across the lunar surface.
Sierra Nevada Corp. won $ 2.4 million to develop demonstration hardware that uses methane and concentrated solar energy to extract oxygen from the lunar soil, according to NASA.
NASA also selected Astrobotic, pH Matter, Precision Combustion, and Teledyne Energy Systems for awards focusing on testing wireless charging technology and fuel cells that generate regenerative energy for potential use on the moon.
“I think there are two things that are of paramount importance,” Bridenstine said. “We need power systems that can last a long time on the surface of the moon and we need dwelling on the surface of the moon.”
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