NASA in late March awarded 12 contracts as part of its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) to advance concept studies and technology development projects in the areas of advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellites, according to an agency statement.

NASA said it selected companies to participate via public-private partnership to develop the exploration capabilities necessary to enable commercial endeavors in space and human exploration to deep-space destinations such as the proving ground of space around the moon, called cis-lunar space, and Mars.

Bigelow's B330 for deep-space habitation will support operations/missions in LEO, DRO, and beyond cis-lunar space. Photo: Bigelow.
Bigelow’s B330 for deep-space habitation will support operations/missions in LEO, DRO, and beyond cis-lunar space. Photo: Bigelow.

NASA awarded three companies contracts ranging from $400,000 to $3.5 million for advanced electric propulsion projects to develop systems in the 50- to 300-kilowatt range. Ad Astra Rocket Company, Aerojet Rocketdyne [AJRD] and MSNW LLC were all awarded contracts with no more than three-year performance periods focused on ground testing efforts. NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz on Tuesday declined to provide the value of the individual contracts, but said NASA is still negotiating some of the contracts.

A NASA blog post uploaded late Tuesday detailed each contract recipients’ plans. For electric propulsion, Ad Astra Rocket will develop and test an advanced version of its Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine, an advanced plasma space propulsion system. Aerojet Rocketdyne will complete the development on a Power Processing Unit that will convert the electric power generated by a spacecraft’s solar arrays into the power needed for its patented 250 kW multi-channel Nested Hall Thruster. MSNW LLC plans to develop a thruster for high-power, exploration class missions.

State-of-the-art electric propulsion technology currently used by NASA generates less than five kilowatts and systems being developed for the Asteroid Recovery Mission (ARM) broad area announcement (BAA) are in the 40-kilowatt range.

NASA also awarded seven contracts to companies for habitation systems that will help define the architecture and subsystems of a modular habitation capability to enable extended missions to deep space. Orion is the first component of human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) and will be capable of sustaining a crew of four for 21 days in deep space and returning them safely to Earth.

Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing [BA], Dynetics, Hamilton Sunstrand, Lockheed Martin [LMT], Orbital ATK [OA] and Orbital Technologies Corp., were all awarded contracts ranging between $400,000 to $1 million for study and development efforts with initial performance periods of up to 12 months. There is potential for follow-on phases to be defined during the initial phase.

For habitation, Boeing will develop a simple, low-cost habitat that is affordable early on, allowing various technologies to be tested over time and capable of evolving into a  long-duration crew support system for cis-lunar and Mars exploration. Orbital ATK will develop a habitat concept that employs a modular, building block approach and leverages its Cygnus cargo spacecraft to expand cis-lunar and long duration deep space technologies.  Lockheed Martin will perform studies and create designs to determine how Orion and future habitats will need to interface and how the life support, radiation protection and communication systems would best work in the environment of deep space.

The habitation projects will address concepts, and, in some cases, provide advancement in technologies related to habitation and operations, or environmental control and life support capabilities of a habitation system. NASA said these selections are intended to augment the Orion capsule with the development of capabilities to initially sustain a crew of four for up to 60 days in cis-lunar space with the ability to scale up to transit habitation capabilities for future Mars missions.

The cubesat projects will potentially fly as secondary payload missions on the first flight of SLS, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), roughly scheduled for June 2018. The two cubesat projects are fixed-price contracts with technical and payment milestones and total values ranging from $1.4 million to $7.9 million per award for the entire development and operations. Lockheed Martin and Morehead State University received the cubesat NextSTEP contracts.

For cubesats, Lockheed Martin will tailor an internally-developed cubesat called SkyFire to add a lunar flyby of the moon to its mission, taking infrared sensor data during the flyby to enhance knowledge of the lunar surface. Morehead State University will develop and build a cubesat designed to search for water, ice and other resources at a low orbit of only 62 miles above the surface of the moon.

A NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) study released Tuesday after deadline found six technological building blocks are necessary to reach Mars, with four already underway and a fifth being pursued with industry, Administrator Charles Bolden said at the Humans 2 Mars conference in Washington.

Schierholz said Tuesday the six building blocks are: the Space Launch System (SLS); the Orion space capsule; a deep space habitat; solar electric propulsion (also known as advanced propulsion); a conventional-propellant propulsion stage for various functions, including Mars orbit insertion and returning a crew to Earth; and a Mars lander. Bolden said, without providing specifics, four of the six critical elements are already underway while solar electric propulsion is moving forward with industry through NextSTEP.