The minds behind NASA just kicked in millions of dollars to back a dozen new technology products, and a few of these could be the catalysts to eventually get us to Mars and beyond.
The space agency has selected 12 Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) projects aimed to advance concept studies and technology development projects in the areas of advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellites. The plan is to basically have NASA partner with these companies and agencies to develop new tech for exploration capabilities and space exploration. Hopefully these investments will serve as a proving ground and catalyst for the next few decades of space exploration.
Of the 12 projects, three focus on advance propulsion; seven aim to develop new habitats for space and planetary exploration; and two are CubeSat projects that are basically mini-satellites or devices that’ll fly as secondary payloads. William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters, noted the diverse slate will hopefully “inform the strategy to move human presence further into the solar system.”
According to NASA, the three advanced electric propulsion projects aim to develop propulsion technology systems in the 50-to-300-kilowatt range to meet the needs of a variety of deep-space mission concepts. State-of-the-art electric propulsion technology currently employed by NASA generates less than five kilowatts, and systems being developed for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) Broad Area Announcement (BAA) are in the 40-kilowatt range. Companies participating include Ad Astra Rocket Company, Aeroject Rocketdyne Inc. and MSNW LLC.
The seven habitation projects will help define the architecture and subsystems of a modular habitation capability to enable extended missions in deep space. They’ll start by hopefully expanding the time Orion teams can spend in space, but the plan is to eventually scale that tech out for full-fledged exploration. The project list will deal with concepts surrounding habitation and operations, as well as environmental control and life support capabilities of a habitation system. The companies include Bigelow Aerospace LLC, The Boeing Company, Dynetics Inc., Hamilton Sundstrand Space Systems International, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Orbital ATK of Dulles and Orbital Technologies Corporation.
Finally, the CubeSat projects will potentially fly as secondary payload missions on the first flight of the Space Launch System, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). They’ll address NASA’s strategic knowledge gaps in order to reduce risk, increase effectiveness and improve the design of robotic and human space exploration. Companies include Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company and Morehead State University.
The overall investment across all 12 projects hit on approximately $13 million or more in total investment, with more expected as the stages develop.