NASA picks 25 space technologies for testing by Blue Origin and other companies


Three of the vehicles to be used for testing space technologies are Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship and Masten Space Systems’ lander vehicle. (Virgin Galactic / Blue Origin / Masten via NASA)

NASA’s Flight Opportunities program has selected 25 promising space technologies for testing aboard aircraft, high-altitude balloons and suborbital rocket ships — including Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft.

Blue Origin, the space venture created by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and headquartered in Kent, Wash., will be involved in testing 11 of the technologies. The company has been providing flights for suborbital space experiments since 2016 at its West Texas spaceport.

The latest projects were selected as part of NASA’s Tech Flights solicitation. Awardees typically receive a grant or enter into a cost-sharing agreement through which they can select a commercial flight provider that meets the requirements for their payload.

“With vibrant and growing interest in exploration and commercial space across the country, our goal with these selections is to support innovators from industry and academia who are using rapid and affordable commercial opportunities to test their technologies in space,” Christopher Baker, program executive for Flight Opportunities at NASA Headquarters, said in a news release.

“These suborbital flights enable researchers to quickly and iteratively test technologies with the opportunity to make adjustments between flights,” Baker said. “The ultimate goal is to change the pace of technology development and drastically shorten the time it takes to bring an idea from the lab to orbit or to the moon.”

NASA said this year’s awards total nearly $10 million.

The Flight Opportunities program is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and managed at Armstrong Flight Research Center. NASA’s Ames Research Center manages the solicitation and evaluation of technologies to be tested and demonstrated on commercial flight vehicles.

Here’s NASA’s list of selections, organized by topic area:

Supporting sustainable lunar exploration and the expansion of economic activity into cislunar space

Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis:

  • Advancements that address the need for accurately measuring propellant levels of spacecraft during dynamic events in zero gravity, such as engine burns. This technology is planned to fly on both the Zero Gravity Corporation (Zero-G) aircraft and Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket.

Draper in Cambridge, Mass.

  • A navigation system designed to give crewed missions precise location and navigation data needed for safe and accurate lunar and planetary landings. This technology is planned to fly on New Shepard.

Honeybee Robotics Ltd. in Pasadena, Calif.

  • A planetary sample capture device featuring a footpad-integrated sampling tube and sample sorting station. The device is designed to collect surface soil, or regolith, on another world that could be returned to Earth for analysis. This technology is planned to fly on Masten Space Systems’ rocket-powered lander.

IMEC USA Nanoelectronics Design Center in Houston

  • A diagnostic and bioanalytical monitoring solution for astronauts aboard deep space exploration missions. This technology testing is planned to fly on the Zero-G aircraft.

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore

  • A complete lunar radiation hazard characterization and monitoring system. This technology is planned to fly on New Shepard.

Masten Space Systems in Mojave, Calif.

  • A commercialized terrestrial version of a NASA navigation system that has been adapted for space with lower size, mass and power consumption than the previous versions.
  • A laser instrument that measures density and particle size of lunar lander plume ejecta.
  • A high-fidelity landing simulator combined with a regolith sample collection device. These three technologies are planned to fly on Masten’s lander.

Montana State University in Bozeman

  • A computer technology based on cost-effective, off-the-shelf parts that is designed to recover in the event of a system failure caused by radiation. This technology is planned to fly on the Raven Aerostar high-altitude balloon.

North Carolina State University in Raleigh

  • Large-scale deployable solar arrays constructed with a hinge mechanism that allows folding into origami-like shapes for improved packing. This technology is planned to fly on the Zero-G aircraft.

Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas

  • A device to improve the transfer and delivery of cryogenic fluids by reliably removing vapor bubbles. This technology is planned to fly on New Shepard.

University of Central Florida in Orlando

  • An experiment to characterize the charging behavior of dust in lunar-like environments to understand how dust interacts with other particles and surfaces. This technology is planned to fly on New Shepard.

University of Colorado in Boulder

  • Testing of a 3-D printer to determine the effect of reduced gravity on the fabrication of components, including elements of life support systems that could be required to remove carbon dioxide from a crew-occupied cabin. This technology is planned to fly on Zero-G.

University of Florida in Gainesville

  • Enhancement of a flight-proven imaging concept and hardware system to characterize biological responses to changes in gravity levels during spaceflight. This technology is planned to fly on New Shepard.
  • A cryogenic boil-off experiment to collect information and advance the long-term storage of propellant in space. This technology is due to fly on Zero-G.

Fostering commercialization of low Earth orbit and use of suborbital space

GSSL Inc. in Tillamook, Ore.

  • A modified drone shuttle system designed to return large amounts of data from high-altitude balloons, allowing unprocessed science data to be retrieved before the end of a balloon flight. This technology is planned to fly on a Near Space Corp. high-altitude balloon.

Johns Hopkins University

  • An ultraviolet remote imaging system that can fly externally on suborbital rockets, enabling new science measurements at altitudes of up to 62 miles in the absence of ozone.
  • Deployment and re-entry of miniaturized satellites, known as ChipSats, to evaluate the capability of the technology to enable inexpensive study of difficult-to-explore regions of Earth’s upper atmosphere as well as the atmospheres and surfaces of other planets or moons. These two technologies are planned to fly on New Shepard.

Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.

  • Real-time testing of biological changes during suborbital launch and landing conditions and hyper/microgravity. This technology is to fly on New Shepard.

Night Crew Labs LLC in Woodside, Calif.

  • Adaptation of a satellite remote sensing technique that detects changes in Global Navigation Satellite System radio signals as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere to a balloon-based system that provides on-demand and persistent coverage over regions of strong interest during high-impact weather events. This technology is planned to fly on a World View Enterprises high-altitude balloon.

Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

  • A payload designed to observe fuel behavior and its effect on spacecraft pointing. This technology is to fly on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spacecraft.

Southwest Research Institute

  • A novel anchoring and sampling architecture for the surfaces of small asteroids, enabling regolith collection from multiple sites. This technology is planned to fly on New Shepard.

Space Environment Technologies in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

  • Long-duration regional monitoring and identification of harmful radiation sources. This technology is planned to fly on a World View balloon.

University of Kentucky in Lexington

  • Lightweight, compact and low-cost instrumentation designed to examine potential long-range gust and turbulence detection at high altitudes, with benefits for suborbital and low-Earth orbit vehicles as well as general aviation. This technology is planned to fly on a high-altitude balloon and glider combination from Stratodynamics Aviation Inc.

Vanderbilt University in Nashville

  • Testing of a small system designed to enable complex biological and chemical experiments as well as new capabilities for synthesizing chemicals, including pharmaceuticals. This technology is planned to fly on New Shepard.

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