On July 24, 2023, in a press release, NASA announced that eleven US companies have been awarded new contracts as part of Tipping Point 2023. This initiative falls within the Space Tech Industry Partnerships the agency has been promoting for the last few years. The aim of NASA is to let industry partners accelerate the development of useful technology to support the Artemis program and space exploration as a whole.
How NASA is involving the private sector
When preparing for a mission as challenging as establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon, there are numerous factors to consider. From communication, to ground support systems, power generation or utilization of the lunar soil, and many others. And that’s why NASA has been building strategic partnerships with various industries over the last few years.
As the name of the initiative, “Tipping Point”, suggests, companies can submit their projects and ideas to NASA, to be scrutinized and evaluated. If the technology being developed is considered “critical” to advance, better, and ease space exploration, then it could be selected as a Tipping Point. Selected partners will then start a collaboration with NASA resources, to validate and develop said technology in the following years.
The Tipping Point initiative has begun in 2014 and has been implemented six times since then, with the most recent edition being announced for 2022/2023. The goal of the investments is to develop said technologies enough to make them used on other commercial or governmental missions.
This year’s Tipping Point: Other Space Technologies
Even if NASA seems especially concerned with Moon exploration, this year’s selected partners are not all directly involved in the Artemis program.
NASA is also focusing on climate change, and one of the partners is Freedom Photonics, based in California. The company has been developing lasers, optical instruments, and other electronic components. It has been awarded $1.6 million to develop an efficient Lidar detection system for methane in the Earth’s atmosphere.
United Launch Alliance, one of the agency’s leading collaborators for launch services, has been awarded $25 million. NASA will help develop ULA’s Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator. The company has already successfully tested a preliminary version of the design with the LOFTID payload back in November 2022. According to ULA, it could be used to make atmospheric reentry survivable for vital but large and heavy rocket launcher parts, such as Vulcan Centaur’s engine module.
Varda has also been awarded $1.9 million to continue work on Carbon Ablators, to make them more cost-effective and mass-efficient, with the creation of a new material called C-PICA.
Lockheed Martin has been awarded $9.1 million to test component joining and inspection technologies. Assembling structures in space would enable us to build larger and more complex structures. Big Metal Additive has also been awarded $5.4 million to keep developing its additive manufacturing industry, with possible applications for building space habitats.
This year’s Tipping Point: Lunar Technologies
For Artemis, there are many promising projects. Blue Origin’s newly developed regolith-based solar cells have been selected, and Jeff Bezos’ company has been awarded $34.7 million. Blue Alchemist, as it’s called, aims to extract elements from the lunar soil, and use them to make both solar cells and oxygen. The initial goal of the project is to develop and demonstrate the technology in a simulated lunar environment, by 2026.
There are also smaller companies involved, like Astrobotics. Still talking about power usage on the Moon, they will be developing a system to deliver high-voltage power using cables on the Moon’s surface. They have been awarded $34.6 million for a test mission on the Lunar surface called Lunagrid-Lite. Using a 1 km long cable, they will be attempting to transfer 1 kW of power between the two ends. They will be using a small CubeRover.
Zeno will be developing an Americium-241 Radioisotope Power Supply for Artemis, both usable in surface operations and orbital activities. Funding amounts to $15 million.
Speaking of rovers and navigation on the Moon’s surface, Protoinnovations and Psionic have been awarded $6.2 and $3.2 million, to develop guidance systems for rovers and landers respectively.
Lastly, Redwire will be developing a system to use lunar regolith as construction material for pavements, roads and landing pads, with funding of $12.9 million. Specialized microwave emitters will be solidifying regolith and could be used on Moon landers or rovers.