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Nasa selects ideas for space robotics, 3D printing and alien technologies

Nasa has selected 21 research and technology proposals from American small businesses and research institutions that will enable Nasa’s future missions into the solar system and alien worlds further out in space. 

The agency says its selections also consider America’s technology-driven economy here on Earth.

The Phase II selectees of Nasa’s Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program are permitted to enter negotiations for possible contract awards worth a combined total of approximately $15.8 million.

The program selected 21 innovative technology and projects from 41 US firms and research institutions in 20 different states. 

Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at Nasa Headquarters in Washington, says: “Just as small businesses are driving our economy, technology is driving exploration.

“These selected proposals demonstrate the creativity of American entrepreneurs and, along with our other technology investments, will contribute to ensuring the US remains a leader in technology development and space exploration.”

A sampling of proposals from the selected small businesses and research institutions demonstrates the breadth of research these awards will fund, including technology developments and advancements in the following areas:

  • Autonomous communications systems
  • Gas sensing technology advancements for spacesuits
  • Space weather prediction
  • Technologies for planetary compositional analysis and mapping
  • Information technologies for intelligent and adaptive space robotics
  • Advanced propulsion system ground test and launch technology

One study will explore the use of a fuel grain as propellant. The proposed green propellant system offers significant advantages over competing technologies in the areas of cost, safety and mission capability. This effort will build on the successful studies, design, and testing activities completed during Phase I research.

Nasa says the resulting technology will fulfill the ever-growing mission demands of the extensive small satellite market, including CubeSats and NanoSats, by enabling dedicated launch for CubeSat-scale payloads. Comparable launch vehicle stages in this size class currently are not commercially available.

A second study involves a new generation of CubeSats that take advantage of in-situ resources – living off the land — while exploring space. The proposal combines existing CubeSat technology with 3D printing technology and an in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) water extraction system.

The 3D printing technology enables development of steam thrusters, as well as tanks that fit within the available space within the CubeSat. The ISRU module captures and extracts water, and takes advantage of the heat generated by the CubeSat electronics system, with supplemental power from solar charged batteries.

Nasa’s STTR Program uses a highly competitive, three-phase award system that provides collaborative opportunities between qualified small businesses, including women-owned and disadvantaged firms, and research institutions, to address specific technology gaps in Nasa programs. Selected projects provide a foundation for future technology developments and are complementary to other Nasa research investments.

STTR Phase II projects will expand on the results of recently completed Phase I projects, which received six-month contracts valued as much as $125,000. Phase II projects will last up to two years and receive contracts valued as much as $750,000 per award. Phase III, the commercialization of an innovation, may occur after successful completion of Phase II.

Selection criteria for these awards included technical merit and feasibility, along with experience, qualifications and facilities. Also, selectees must meet requirements of effectiveness of the work plan, and commercial potential and feasibility.

Nasa’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, manages both the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and STTR Programs for STMD, with individual project oversight from across the agency’s 10 field centers.