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NASA eyes fusion reactor engines, extraterrestrial drilling, other far-out technologies

NASA has selected 399 research and technology proposals from 277 American small businesses and 44 research institutions that will enable NASA’s future missions into deep space, and advancements in aviation and science, while also benefiting the U.S. economy. The awards have a total value of approximately $49.9 million.

These include 13 projects tied to Stennis Space Center.

The agency received 1,621 proposals in response to its 2017 solicitation for its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. From those, NASA selected 338 SBIR and 61 STTR Phase I proposals for contract negotiations. The SBIR Phase I contracts last for six months and STTR Phase I contracts last for 12 months, both with maximum funding of $125,000.

“The SBIR and STTR program’s selection of nearly 400 proposals for further development is a testament to NASA’s support of American innovation by small businesses and research institutions,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This program provides opportunities for companies and institutions to commercialize their innovations while contributing to meeting NASA’s goals and objectives across all mission areas.”

Selected proposals will support the development of technologies in the areas of aeronautics, science, human exploration and operations, and space technology. A sampling of proposals demonstrates the breadth of research and development these awards will fund, including:

  • High temperature superconducting coils for a future fusion reaction space engine. These coils are needed for the magnetic field that allows the engine to operate safely. Nuclear fusion reactions are what power our sun and other stars, and an engine based on this technology would revolutionize space flight.
  • Advanced drilling technologies to enable exploration of extraterrestrial oceans beneath the icy shells of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which can be miles thick. This is critical for detecting past or present life in these off-world oceans.
  • New wheels for planetary rovers that dramatically improve mobility over a wide variety of terrains. This new design has multiple applications and could potentially impact any heavy-duty or off-road vehicle in diverse markets such as farming and defense.
  • Software-enabling collaborative control of multiple unmanned aircraft systems, especially in scenarios where uncrewed vehicles fly in close proximity to crewed flights. These types of operations also are of interest to national security and disaster relief missions, including fire management.
  • A leading-edge manufacturing process that enables recycling of used or failed metal parts by placing them into a press, producing a slab of metal, and machining it into a needed metal part in logistically remote environments, such as a space station or long-duration space mission. This area also is of interest to the manufacturing sector, since there is a need to reduce processing footprint.

Seven selected SBIR proposals and six STTR proposals involve technology being monitored by the Office of the Chief Technologist at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. One also involves a company located at Stennis.

The seven SBIR projects are:

  • “Multi-Physics NTR Safety analyses,” developed by Little Prairie Services in Edgewood, New Mexico.
  • “Novel Sorbent to Remove Radioactive Halogens and Noble Gases from NTP Engine Exhaust,” developed by TDA Research Inc. in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.
  • “An Affordable Autonomous Hydrogen Flame Detection System for Rocket Propulsion,” developed by Innovative Imaging and Research Corp. at Stennis Space Center.
  • “Advanced Propulsion Systems Ground Test Technology,” developed by Intelligent Fiber Optic Systems Corp. in Santa Clara, California.
  • “Innovative Ultra-High Efficiency Cryogenic Actuators for Rocket Test Facilities,” developed by PolyK Technologies, LLC in State College, Pennsylvania.
  • “Helium and Hydrogen Mixed Gas Separator,” developed by Reactive Innovations, LLC in Westford, Massachusetts.
  • “H2/He (molecular hydrogen and helium) Separation System,” developed by TDA Research Inc. in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

The six STTR projects are:

  • “Waste Heat Recovery by Thermo-Radiative Cell for Space Applications,” developed by Advanced Cooling Technologies Inc. in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
  • “Through Wall Wireless Intelligent Sensor and Health Monitoring (TWall-ISHM) System,” developed by American GNC Corp. in Simi Valley, California, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
  • “Encrypted Self-Targeting Energy Beams for Power Transmission Designed for Satellite and Space Habitat Applications, developed by Applied Material Systems Engineering, Inc. in Schaumburg, Illinois. and The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois  in Champaign, Illinois.
  • “Electrical Power from Thermal Energy Scavenging in High Temperature Environments,” developed by Physical Sciences Inc. in Andover, Massachusetts, and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
  • “High Performance Simulation Tool for Multiphysics Propulsion Using Fidelity-Adaptive Combustion Modeling,” developed by Streamline Numerics Inc. in Gainesville, Florida, and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
  • “Self-Powered Multi-Functional Wireless Sensor Network for Nondestructive Evaluation and Structural Health Monitoring,” developed by X-wave Innovations Inc. in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and New York Institute of Technology in New York City.

Proposals were selected according to their technical merit and feasibility, in addition to the experience, qualifications and facilities of the submitting organization. Additional criteria included effectiveness of the work plan and commercial potential.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses have created 55% of all jobs in the United States since the 1970s. SBIR and STTR programs are competitive awards-based programs. They encourage small businesses and research institutions to engage in federal research and development, and industrial commercialization, by enabling them to explore technological potential and providing incentives to profit from new commercial products and services. The awards span 36 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

The SBIR program is managed for STMD by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. STMD is responsible for developing the cross-cutting, pioneering, new technologies and capabilities needed by the agency to achieve its current and future missions.

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