Blue Origin and Astrobotic were big winners to explore moon-resource technologies among $150 million in awards given to 11 companies by NASA on Tuesday.
Part of NASA’s Tipping Point program, NASA partners with industry for the projects calling on each award winner to contribute between 10% and 25% of the project cost, which cover a lot of moon-based wants, but also some in space in general. The program is designed to push companies with technology that could advance NASA’s exploration needs closer to a finished product.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, based in Kent, Washington but with several projects in the Space Coast, landed nearly $35 million to explore efforts to turn lunar regolith into solar power cells through a process it has dubbed Blue Alchemist. Blue Origin’s plans fall under NASA’s need for what it calls In-Situ Resource Utilization. It looks to take the moon’s crushed rock lunar surface and using a process called molten regolith electrolysis create the cells and power transmission cables anywhere on the moon. The process also happens to create oxygen as a byproduct that can be used for both life support and rocket propulsion.
Blue Origin said in a press release the NASA investment will help fund a demonstration using a simulated lunar environment by 2026.
“Harnessing the vast resources in space to benefit Earth is part of our mission, and we’re inspired and humbled to receive this investment from NASA to advance our innovation,” said Blue Origin executive Pat Remias in a press release. “First we return humans to the moon, then we start to ‘live off the land.’”
Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, which is set to send its first lunar lander Peregrine under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program on a launch to the moon before the end of the year, also landed nearly $35 million for its LunaGrid-Lite program, which is a demonstration of tethered power transmission on the moon.
It would take one of the company’s small rovers, which is slated to fly on Astrobotic’s second CLPS lander mission Griffin as early as November 2024, and have it unreel more than 1/2 mile of high-voltage power line. The end goal would be for these rovers to lay connection lines between a source power production system to something like a habitat or work area.
Another moon-based award was $12.9 million to Jacksonville-based Redwire to develop a grader, compactor and microwave emitter that can take moon regolith and turn it into roads, landing pads and other habitat foundations.
Not every award was moon-focused. United Launch Alliance, for instance, received a $25 million award to continue work on its inflatable heat shield called LOFTID (Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator), which had a test flight last November. NASA is keen for the technology to return large rocket parts from low-Earth orbit for reuse, and farther down the line could provide the cushion needed for infrastructure landings on places like Mars.
And Lockheed Martin got $9.1 million to explore better in-space architecture assembly.
Other companies receiving awards were Big Metal Additive of Denver getting $5.4 million for 3D space habitat printing; Freedom Photonics of Santa Barbara, California with $1.6 million for laser work; Protoinnovations of Pittsburgh with $6.2 million for lunar rover and robot mobility control software; Psionic of Hampton, Virginia with $3.2 million to develop a high-precision navigation system; Varda Space Industries of El Segundo, California with $1.9 million for a thermal protection system for spacecraft; and Zeno Power Systems of Washington with $15 million to develop a power system using Americium 241, an alternative to plutonium.
“Partnering with the commercial space industry lets us at NASA harness the strength of American innovation and ingenuity,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “The technologies that NASA is investing in today have the potential to be the foundation of future exploration.”