As NASA forges ahead to the Moon — and eventually to Mars — the agency is hoping to get some help from the commercial space industry. Today, NASA announced new partnerships with various aerospace organizations, aimed at advancing technologies related to landing on other planets, navigating the lunar surface, transferring propellant in space, and more — all of which could be critical for future missions.
Various NASA centres will partner with the companies — which range from small businesses with fewer than a dozen employees to large aerospace organisations — to provide expertise, facilities, hardware and software at no cost, the agency said in a statement on Tuesday.
“We’ve identified technology areas NASA needs for future missions, and these public-private partnerships will accelerate their development so we can implement them faster,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).
Thirteen companies now hold a total of 19 partnerships with NASA through the agency’s Announcement of Collaborative Opportunity initiative, or ACO. In October, NASA put out a call for proposals from the industry, asking them to detail different technologies they’d like to develop through the program. Now, the companies that have been selected will be given expertise and resources from various NASA centers to help mature these space technologies — at no cost to the companies themselves.
Blue Origin will collaborate with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Goddard to mature a navigation and guidance system for safe and precise landing at a range of locations on the Moon.
Blue Origin will also partner with Glenn and Johnson to mature a fuel cell power system for the company’s Blue Moon lander.
The system could provide uninterrupted power during the lunar night, which lasts for about two weeks in most locations.
“Blue Origin, Marshall and Langley will evaluate and mature high-temperature materials for liquid rocket engine nozzles that could be used on lunar landers,” said NASA.
SpaceX will work with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to advance their technology to vertically land large rockets on the Moon. This includes advancing models to assess engine plume interaction with lunar regolith.
SpaceX will also work with Glenn and Marshall to advance technology needed to transfer propellant in orbit, an important step in the development of the company’s Starship space vehicle.
Other companies like Maxar will also work to develop some potential key space technologies, including new types of solar panels and robots that can assemble themselves while in orbit. And some groups will work on technologies related to reusing rockets, something that SpaceX has focused on in recent years. For instance, Sierra Nevada will work on a method for recovering the upper portion of a rocket after it launches from Earth — a feat that SpaceX hasn’t attempted yet.
All of these technologies sound very exciting, and some are crucial for achieving NASA’s goal of sending people to the Moon and Mars. However, these partnerships are just getting started, and it’s unclear when any of these technologies will reach operational status. Ultimately, NASA is hoping that by giving some assistance to the industry, the agency can avoid the high cost of independently developing these capabilities — and then reap the benefits of these technologies when they’re fully grown.