NASA Announces 14 New “Tipping Point” Technologies for its Lunar Exploration

In four years, NASA plans to return astronauts to the Moon as part of Project Artemis. To ensure the success of this endeavor, as well as the creation of a program of sustainable lunar exploration by the end of the decade, NASA has partnered with multiple entities in the commercial space sector. Recently, they announced that contracts will be awarded to 14 additional companies to develop a range of proposed technologies.

These proposals are part of NASA’s fifth competitive Tipping Point solicitation, one of many private-public partnership programs overseen by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). For this latest solicitation, Tipping Point is awarding contracts with a combined value of over $370 million for technology demonstrations that will facilitate future lunar missions and commercial space capabilities.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the selections on Wednesday, Oct. 14th, during a keynote address at the virtual fall Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium meeting. As he explained during the course of the address, the 14 companies selected by Tipping Point will be awarding fixed-price contracts lasting for up to five years for the development of technology demonstrations.
NASA is investing in long-term cryogenic fluid management technologies in order to return astronauts to the Moon and stay there. Credit: NASA

In addition to the award money, those companies selected will also be able to work with NASA’s various centers in order to mature their technology demonstrations. As Bridenstine said in a recent NASA statement:

“NASA’s significant investment in innovative technology demonstrations, led by small and large U.S. businesses across nine states, will expand what is possible in space and on the lunar surface. Together, NASA and industry are building up an array of mission-ready capabilities to support a sustainable presence on the Moon and future human missions to Mars.”

The technology demonstrations are divided into three categories based on the area of study. These include Cryogenic Fluid Management, which relates to technologies that prevent fuel from being lost due to evaporation (aka. “boil-off”) and ensure that lunar ice samples are kept stable. Such technologies are essential to establishing a sustainable presence on the Moon and enabling crewed missions to Mars.

Within this category, four companies received contracts and awards totaling over $256 million. Florida-based Eta Space received $27 million for their small-scale flight demonstration of a complete cryogenic liquid oxygen (LOX) management system. This system will be the primary payload on a Rocket Lab Photon satellite and will spend nine months in space collecting vital data on cryogenic fluid management.

Major aerospace and longtime NASA-contractor Lockheed Martin received $89.7 million for an in-space demonstration mission that would test more than a dozen cryogenic fluid management systems. Similarly, commercial space titan SpaceX will receive $53.2 million to conduct a large-scale flight demonstration where 10 metric tons (US tons) of LOX will be transferred between tanks on one of their Starship vehicles.

Artist concept of the SpaceX Starship on the surface of the Moon. Credits: SpaceX

Lastly, major contractor United Launch Alliance (ULA) will receive $86.2 million to demonstrate their smart propulsion cryogenic system. This system will be integrated into the upper stage of the Vulcan Centaur rockets in the future, will rely on a combination of LOX and liquid hydrogen, and will conduct various tests (like pressure control, tank-to-tank transfer, and long-term propellant storage).

For the second category, Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative, NASA is awarding over $100 million in contracts for technologies that will advance in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). This includes applications that can provide surface power generation, energy storage, communications, and other capabilities that are vital to ensuring the basic needs of crews and facilitating human and robotic exploration on the Moon.

Among the ten recipients are robotics developers like Alpha Space Test and Research Alliance, which was awarded $22.1 million for their space science and technology evaluation facility, which will give small experiments access to the lunar environment. Similarly, Intuitive Machines received $41.6 million to develop a hopper lander vehicle capable of carrying 1 kg (2.2 lbs) payloads for distances of more than 2.5 km (1.5 mi).

Mojave-based Masten Space Systems was awarded $2.8 million to build and demonstrate a universal chemical heat and electrical power source that can operate in the extreme temperatures of lunar night and in craters. And SSL Robotics (a subsidiary of Maxar Technologies) received $8.7 million to develop a robotic arm for lunar surface applications, in-orbit servicing, and terrestrial defense.

Artist’s impression of astronauts exploring a lunar crater. Credit: NASA

In terms of power generation and storage, Astrobotic Technology received $5.8 million for a wireless charging system for commercial robotic landers; Ohio-based pH Matter was awarded $3.4 million for their reversible, regenerative fuel cell capable of generating and storing power on the lunar surface; and Nokia of America was awarded $14.1 million to fund the development of the first lunar LTE/4G communications system.

For fuel systems, Precision Combustion Inc. was awarded $2.4 million for a solid oxide fuel cell stack that generates power from methane and oxygen propellants and other in-situ resources. The Sierra Nevada Corporation (makers of the Dream Chaser spacepalen) was also awarded $2.4 million to develop a system that uses methane and concentrated solar energy to extract oxygen from lunar regolith.

And Teledyne Energy Systems was awarded $2.8 million to create an advanced hydrogen electrical system that could result in fuel cells that with lifespans of 10,000 hours. As per the terms of their contract, Teledyne will send a key element of the system (water separator) on a parabolic flight to assess how it fares under different degrees of gravity – with particular attention to the effects of microgravity.

Third, there were the contracts that fell into the Closed-Loop Descent and Landing Capability category, which is concerned with the development of integrated precision landing and hazard avoidance technologies. Only one contract was awarded here, again to Masten ($10 million) for its Xogdor vehicle, which will provide suborbital flights to altitudes of over 100 km (62 mi) to test space technologies.

In addition to the award money, each of these 14 companies is tasked with contributing a minimum percentage of the total project cost (based on its size). Said Jim Reuter, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Technology:

“This is the most Tipping Point proposals NASA has selected at once and by far the largest collective award value. We are excited to see our investments and collaborative partnerships bring about new technologies for the Moon and beyond while also benefiting the commercial sector.

In the end, the majority of the funding for this Tipping Point solicitation is directed towards the development of cryogenic fluid management systems, ranging from small- to large-scale, and short-to long-term tests. This illustrates the importance NASA and other space agencies are placing on the ability to produce fuel from ice harvested around the Moon’s polar regions.

The ability to break down water molecules to create liquid oxygen (LOX) and hydrogen fuel, store them at cryogenic temperatures for extended periods of time, and transfer them from one tank to another, is crucial for establishing sustainable operations on the Moon. Along with infrastructure like the Lunar Gateway, the Artemis Base Camp, and other proposed surface facilities, they will also fascilitate crewed missions to Mars.

Further Reading: NASA, NASA (2)