Blue Origin and Aerojet get in on NASA partnerships for new space technologies

Aerojet "green" propellant in lab
A researcher at Aerojet Rocketdyne examines a container of a low-toxicity propellant during preparation for flight testing. Aerojet’s Redmond facility will be involved in a follow-up project to develop a new kind of hybrid “green” propellant. (Aerojet Rocketdyne Photo)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s operation in Redmond, Wash., are among 17 companies that have struck deals with NASA to develop new technologies for space missions.

The 20 collaborative projects are part of a program managed by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. The selected projects will be governed by unfunded Space Act Agreements. No funds will be exchanged, but the companies will gain access to NASA expertise and testing services that carry an estimated value of $15.5 million.

“Space technology development doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Jim Reuter, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology, said today in a news release. “Whether companies are pursuing space ventures of their own or maturing cutting-edge systems to one day offer a new service to NASA, the agency is dedicated to helping bring new capabilities to market for our mutual benefit.”

Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin will partner with NASA on two projects. One involves the development of a space robot operating system that will rely on open-source software and provide greater autonomy while reducing operating costs and improving interoperability with other space systems. NASA’s Ames Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center and Johnson Space Center will work with Blue Origin on this project.

The second project aims to improve rocket engine designs by incorporating metal-based additive manufacturing techniques. The 3-D printing project is aimed at optimizing weight, energy efficiency and manufacturability while minimizing production cost. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will be Blue Origin’s partner on this project.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond operation will partner with Goddard Space Flight Center to develop a new hybrid propellant of “green” ionic liquid and conventional hydrazine for small spacecraft. Such a propellant would be less toxic than conventional propellants. The project will build on work that was done by NASA, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, Aerojet and other partners for the Green Propellant Infusion Mission.

Here’s a rundown of the other 17 projects, which involve companies outside the Pacific Northwest:

Ahmic Aerospace of Oakwood, Ohio, will work with Ames to test new types of thermal protection systems, which are designed to protect rockets and hardware from the extreme heat experienced during launch and atmospheric re-entry.

AI SpaceFactory of Secaucus, N.J., will collaborate with Kennedy Space Center on the development of a new material that could be used to practice 3-D printing methods for building large structures on the moon’s surface.

Box Elder Innovations of Corinne, Utah, will work with Glenn Research Center to improve dielectric materials – a type of electric insulation – for aircraft, spacecraft and lunar power system wiring.

Cornerstone Research Group of Miamisburg, Ohio, will partner with Ames and Johnson Space Center to evaluate a 3-D printing method that makes use of slurry-based thermoset resins to fabricate thermal protective systems.

Elementum 3D of Erie, Colo., will work with Marshall to increase the performance and reduce the cost of additively manufactured aluminum materials for aerospace and automotive applications.

Gloyer-Taylor Laboratories of Tullahoma, Tenn., will partner with Marshall to evaluate the company’s software tools for processing high-fidelity computational fluid dynamics and stabilizing propulsion system designs.

IN Space of West Lafayette, Ind., will collaborate with Marshall to explore the use of additive manufacturing to produce a regeneratively cooled engine chamber for IN Space’s rotating detonation engine.

Orbital Sciences Corp. (Northrop Grumman Space Systems) of Dulles, Va., will partner with Glenn to develop an electric propulsion system for small spacecraft that offers an affordable, efficient and high-propellant throughput option.

pH Matter of Columbus, Ohio, will partner with Johnson and Glenn to define lunar water contaminant compositions and cell stack specifications for producing hydrogen and oxygen on the moon for both energy storage and propellant applications. The project will capitalize on pH Matter’s $3.4 million Tipping Point award from NASA.

Phase Four of El Segundo, Calif., will work with Glenn to test the radio frequency thruster for the company’s electric propulsion system. Glenn will also characterize the thruster’s plasma plume to optimize the system.

Rocket Lab USA of Long Beach, Calif., will partner with Ames, Langley Research Center and Armstrong Flight Research Center on the development of a recovery system that could be used on the first stage of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket as well as on other spacecraft.

Sensuron of Austin, Texas, will work with Armstrong, Langley and Glenn to develop a miniature, ruggedized temperature-monitoring solution that uses a fiber optic sensing system. The technology is designed to keep tabs on cryogenic propellant tanks during flight.

SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., will partner with Langley to capture imagery and thermal measurements of its Starship vehicle during orbital re-entry over the Pacific Ocean. The resulting data could advance the development of a thermal protection system suitable for missions returning from the moon and Mars.

Space Systems Loral (Maxar Technologies) of Palo Alto, Calif., will work with Glenn on three projects:

  • Vacuum chamber tests of a system that would use mechanical pulses to shake lunar dust loose from roll-out solar arrays..

  • Tests of a method that makes use of protective coatings to prevent the erosion effects caused by spacecraft Hall-effect thruster plumes.

  • Simulations aimed at testing a bang-bang pressure regulation system that could open the way for high-power solar electric propulsion missions.

Stellar Exploration, Inc. of San Luis Obispo, Calif., will work with Ames, Johnson and Goddard to perform qualification testing on a high-performance nanosatellite propulsion system.

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