Deep Space Exploration
Many of NASA’s most iconic spacecraft towered over the engineers who built them: think Voyagers 1 and 2, Cassini or Galileo — all large machines that could measure up to a school bus.
But in the past two decades, mini-satellites called CubeSats have made space accessible to a new generation. These briefcase-sized boxes are more focused in their abilities and have a fraction of the mass — and cost — of some past titans of space.
In May, engineers will be watching closely as NASA launches its first pair of CubeSats designed for deep space. The twin spacecraft are called Mars Cube One, or MarCO, and were built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
By George McGinn
Cosmology and Space Research Institute
I don’t believe in Dark Matter or Dark Energy. Even the new Dark Flow.
ESO Public Information Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Astronomers have for a long time studied the glowing, cosmic clouds of gas and dust catalogued as NGC 6334 and NGC 6357, this gigantic new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope being only the most recent one. With around two billion pixels this is one of the largest images ever released by ESO. The evocative shapes of the clouds have led to their memorable names: the Cat’s Paw Nebula and the Lobster Nebula, respectively. Credit: ES
Building on the success of NASA’s partnerships with commercial industry to date, NASA has selected 12 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.
Through these public-private partnerships, selected companies will partner with NASA 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, known as cis-lunar space, and Mars.
“Commercial partners were selected for their technical ability to mature key technologies and their commitment to the potential applications both for government and private sector uses,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters. “This work ultimately will inform the strategy to move human presence further into the solar system.”
Results from these studies and hardware developments also will help determine the role for international partner involvement, by fully exploring domestic capabilities, and for Orion and Space Launch Systems missions in cis-lunar space. This work also will advance system understanding and define a need for further testing of habitation systems and components on the International Space Station.
Selected advanced electric propulsion projects will develop propulsion technology systems in the 50- to 300-kilowatt range to meet the needs of a variety of deep space mission concepts. State-of-the-art electric propulsion technology currently employed by NASA generates less than five kilowatts, and systems being developed for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) Broad Area Announcement (BAA) are in the 40-kilowatt range.
The three NextSTEP advanced propulsion projects, $400,000 to $3.5 million per year per award, will have no more than a three-year performance period focused on ground testing efforts. The selected companies are:
- Ad Astra Rocket Company of Webster, Texas
- Aeroject Rocketdyne Inc. of Redmond, Washington
- MSNW LLC of Redmond, Washington
Habitation systems selections will help define the architecture and subsystems of a modular habitation capability to enable extended missions in deep space. Orion is the first component of human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and will be capable of sustaining a crew of four for 21 days in deep space and returning them safely to Earth.
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 selected 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.
The seven NextSTEP habitat projects will have initial performance periods of up to 12 months, at a value of $400,000 to $1 million for the study and development efforts, and the potential for follow-on phases to be defined during the initial phase. The selected companies are:
- Bigelow Aerospace LLC of North Las Vegas, Nevada
- The Boeing Company of Pasadena, Texas
- Dynetics Inc. of Huntsville, Alabama
- Hamilton Sundstrand Space Systems International of Windsor Locks, Connecticut
- Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company of Denver, Colorado
- Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia
- Orbital Technologies Corporation of Madison, Wisconsin
The CubeSat projects selected through this award will potentially fly as secondary payload missions on the first flight of the Space Launch System, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). CubeSat selections will address NASA’s strategic knowledge gaps in order to reduce risk, increase effectiveness, and improve the design of robotic and human space exploration.
EM-1 will provide a rare opportunity to boost these CubeSats to deep space and enable science, technology demonstration, exploration or commercial applications in that environment. The two NextSTEP CubeSat projects will have fixed-price contracts with technical and payment milestones and total values for the entire development and operations of $1.4 to $7.9 million per award. The selected companies are:
- Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company of Denver, Colorado
- Morehead State University of Morehead, Kentucky
NextSTEP activities will be executed through fixed-price contracts with milestone payments, combined with corporate-resource contributions the selected partner will provide toward overall study and technology development efforts, benefitting NASA and future commercial endeavors.
“This type of public-private partnership helps NASA stimulate the U.S. space industry while expanding the frontiers of knowledge, capabilities and opportunities in space,” said Jason Crusan, director of the Advanced Exploration Systems Division (AESD) of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington.
AESD manages NextSTEP and is committed to pioneering new approaches for rapidly developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities and validating operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit.
For additional information about NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, visit: