NASA has selected 14 companies for contracts worth more than $ 370 million to upgrade technology for human missions to the moon and Mars. Most of the money will support flight demonstrations by SpaceX, the United Launch Alliance and other companies, which could lead to space refueling and fuel depots for reusable lunar landings and vehicles in deep space.
Most of the Tipping Point awards announced Wednesday will allow NASA to pay companies for technology demonstrations in space, after similar awards in previous years focused on component development and ground tests.
NASA has selected Lockheed Martin, the United Launch Alliance, SpaceX and a small Florida-based company called Eta Space for the highest value awards, focusing on the management of cryogenic fluids, the capabilities that can lead to the transfer of ultra-cold liquid hydrogen. methane and liquid oxygen fuels between vehicles in space.
Approximately $ 256 million of NASA’s $ 372 million Prize Point awards will support cryogenic fuel storage and refueling technology. The rest is focused on developing power, precision landings, communications and other systems to support future missions to the surface of the moon.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein said Wednesday that NASA aims to encourage the development of commercial refueling technology and fuel storage to support lunar exploration and ultimately human missions to Mars.
“We have the ambition to reach the moon with the next man and the first woman by 2024,” Bridenstein said, referring to the Artemis program. “We want to be sustainable by 2028. For me, that means we want our human landing systems to be reused by 2028, which means that what we’re going to do is have to have some boot capability by 2028 d. “
After all, the water ice in the polar craters of the moon can be used to generate rocket fuel, air, water and other resources. In the short term, the fuel depot and refueling technologies will rely on resources launched from Earth.
“Many companies and academic institutions … they will understand, and of course NASA is ready to be a customer in the future,” Bridenstein said.
The space agency said Wednesday it would begin negotiations with each of the Tipping Point-awarded negotiations to issue a cornerstone-based fixed-price contract lasting up to five years.
“Much of these different architectures and capabilities will depend on how the private sector innovates,” Bridenstein said at a lunar surface innovation consortium meeting. “That’s why I think it’s important for NASA to partner with private industry and academia, because they will come up with solutions that are extremely unique and diverse, and ultimately really drive what ultimately is that fuel. depots, whether in orbit around the Earth or in orbit around the Moon. “
Lockheed Martin was selected for a $ 89.7 million contract to conduct a space demonstration using liquid hydrogen to test more than a dozen cryogenic fluid management technologies, positioning them for infusion into future space systems, NASA said. Liquid hydrogen is the most challenging and effective cryogenic propellant to work with in space, as it must be maintained at temperatures below minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 253 degrees Celsius) to prevent it from turning into gas. and boiling.
NASA said Lockheed Martin will collaborate with the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Glenn Research Center on the project.
The United Launch Alliance will demonstrate an “intelligent propulsion cryogenic system using liquid oxygen and hydrogen at the upper stage of the volcanic centaur,” NASA said. The ULA award is estimated at $ 86.2 million.
The next generation of ULA rocket Vulcan Centaur will make its first test flight in the second half of 2021.
The company has long promoted fuel depots in space and offered a more advanced upper stage that can perform missions lasting days or weeks in deep space. The upper stage of the Centaur, currently flying ULA missiles, can perform missions lasting just over six hours.
NASA said the intelligent cryogenic propulsion system would “test precise tank pressure control, tank-to-tank transfer and multi-week fuel storage.” Engineers from Marshall, Glenn and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center will work with the ULA on the demonstration.
The $ 53.2 million prize for SpaceX will go to “a large-scale demonstration of a flight to transfer 10 metric tons of cryogenic fuel, particularly liquid oxygen, between vehicle tanks,” NASA said.
The SpaceX spacecraft is designed to carry more than 100 metric tons of cargo to low Earth orbit. By loading a refueling tank into Earth orbit, SpaceX can fill a spacecraft with methane and liquid oxygen to launch more distant destinations, such as the moon or Mars.
SpaceX will work with Glenn and Marshall on the Starship fuel transfer demonstration, NASA said.
“When we think of companies like SpaceX and Starship, their architecture depends heavily on the ability to transfer cryogenics into low Earth orbit in order to bring a system all the way to the moon,” Bridenstein said. “In fact, their system does not require a fuel depot around the moon. Their system will require a fuel depot in orbit around the Earth. “
The SpaceX spacecraft is one of three lunar launch concepts chosen by NASA in April to carry astronauts to and from the moon’s surface. NASA has also selected sales 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 NASA award for “a small flight demonstration of a complete cryogenic oxygen control system,” the space agency said.
“As proposed, the system will be the main payload of the Rocket Lab Photon satellite and will collect critical data for the management of cryogenic liquids in orbit for nine months,” said NASA. “Small businesses will collaborate 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.”
The Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft platform is designed to launch on an Electron rocket. Rocket Lab announced last month that it had successfully launched the first Photon spacecraft, designed to host Earth observation sensors, a payload for communications and scientific experiments for missions in orbit and beyond.
NASA has already signed a contract with Rocket Lab to conduct a small research mission called CAPSTONE to orbit the moon next year using the Electron rocket and the Photon platform.
NASA chose Masten Space Systems to demonstrate precise landing, hazard avoidance, and universal attachment of a chemical source of heat and electricity to help the payload survive the two-week lunar night. The two Masten agreements are valued cumulatively at $ 12.8 million.
With a prize pool of $ 41.6 million, Intuitive Machines will develop a collapsible landing bunker capable of transporting a payload of 2 kilograms (more than 2.5 kilometers) across the moon’s surface, allowing the exploration of craters beyond the reach of larger , conventional rovers.
The Alpha Space Test and Research Alliance of Houston will receive about $ 22.1 million from NASA, will develop a space science and technology assessment facility to provide small experiments with access to the lunar surface, and Maxar Technologies will earn $ 8.7 million from NASA to help develop a lighter and cheaper robotic arm for operations on the surface of the moon, in orbit and on Earth.
Nokia will receive a $ 14.1 million contract from NASA to support the early stages of research into the first LTE / 4G communications network in space, which NASA says can support long-distance communications on the lunar surface.
Sierra Nevada JSC earned $ 2.4 million for the development of 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 regenerative energy-generating fuel cells for potential use on the moon.
“I think there are two things that are crucial,” Bridenstein said. “We need energy systems that can last a long time on the surface of the moon, and we need to inhabit the surface of the moon.”
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