NASA Selects 31 Promising Space Technologies for Commercial Flight Tests

by Nicole Quenelle
NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program

NASA has selected 31 promising space technologies for testing aboard parabolic aircraft, high-altitude balloons, and suborbital rocket-powered systems. By exposing the innovations to many of the rigors and characteristics of spaceflight – without the expense of an orbital flight – NASA can help ensure these technologies work correctly when they are deployed on future missions.

“By supporting suborbital flight testing, our Flight Opportunities  program aims to help ensure that these innovations are well-positioned to address challenges and enable NASA to achieve its lunar ambitions, while also contributing to a growing and vibrant commercial space industry,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). The Flight Opportunities program is part of STMD.

As part of the latest cohort of selections under NASA’s 2020 Tech Flights solicitation, the organizations developing the selected technologies will receive a grant or collaborative agreement allowing them to purchase flights from a U.S. commercial flight vendor that best meets their needs – a process that can help shorten the timeline for bringing innovation from lab-based testing to flight.

This year, the solicitation included for the first time the option for researchers from industry and academia to accompany and tend to their payloads on suborbital space flights. As with all selections, researchers with human-tended payloads will need to ensure that they meet NASA’s requirements laid out in the solicitation prior to funds being awarded.

“We are excited to have selected more technologies for Flight Opportunities than we have in any prior year,” said Christopher Baker, program executive for the program at NASA’s Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “We are leaning forward into the future with some of these selections, including our first of a researcher-tended payload on a suborbital space flight.”

The selected technologies address two topics that reflect current NASA priorities. The topics helped NASA identify technologies that could further the agency’s lunar exploration goals under the Artemis  program as well as utilization of commercial suborbital flight and low-Earth orbit platforms for research applications. The selections, by topic area, are:

Supporting Sustainable Lunar Exploration and the Expansion of Economic Activity into Cislunar Space

Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin

  • A modal propellant gauging method will be tested during continuous liquid transfer, establishing the first microgravity tests of a technique to identify the location and distribution of the liquid surface during propellant transfer. The technology is planned to fly on both Zero Gravity Corporation’s (ZERO-G) G-Force One parabolic aircraft and Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket-powered system.

Draper in Cambridge, Massachusetts

  • An entry, descent, and landing technology for hazard detection will be evaluated, building on its previous flight heritage on high-altitude balloons. The technology is planned to fly on Masten Space Systems’ Xodiac vertical takeoff vertical landing system.

Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne

  • The mechanical system of a plant incubator will be tested to validate its operation in microgravity and inform development of a larger-scale space farming system. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

Honeybee Robotics in Pasadena, California

  • A tool for evaluating the soil strength of near-Earth asteroids will be tested, with the aim of reducing mission risk to asteroids with high commercialization and mining potential. The technology is planned to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard.

Mango Materials Inc. in Oakland, California

  • A membrane-based bioreactor will be tested to evaluate, adapt, and ultimately optimize gas delivery methods that may enable sustainable in-situ 3D printing in space. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge

  • Two different kinds of robots – a “rovable” and an “inchworm” – will be tested to evaluate their potential to support in-space manufacturing and assembly of modular structures. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.
  • A suite of imaging technologies will be used in experiments to help understand boiling models that are critical for the management of cryogenic propellant systems in microgravity. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark

  • Factors impacting liquid nitrogen flow stability will be evaluated to enhance the safety of spacecraft propellant management. The experiment is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana

  • A medical suction device integrated with a microgravity surgical facility will be evaluated, with the aim of delivering a combined system prototype for suborbital testing. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.
  • A liquid-vapor nitrogen system will be evaluated with the goal of advancing the state of the art for long-term cryogenic propellant storage in space. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.
  • A sensor payload will be used to gather data about the heat transfer from a lander’s rocket plume to its legs, with the goal of informing robust designs for future landers. The technology is planned to fly on Masten’s Xodiac.
  • An experiment aimed at enabling development of highly accurate models for the prediction of flow boiling rates will be conducted, with the goal of improving space-based propellant management. The experiment is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

Stanford University in Palo Alto, California

  • A method of using acoustic fields will be tested to evaluate its ability to monitor propellant levels and tank integrity in microgravity. The technology is planned to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard.

The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California

  • A method of pressurizing the contents of a cryogenic liquid storage tank will be evaluated in reduced gravity to determine improvements compared to traditional methods. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

University of California in Davis

  • A suite of sensors and a display technology will be evaluated to determine the system’s effectiveness as a non-pharmaceutical countermeasure for space adaptation sickness. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

University of Central Florida in Orlando

  • Technologies that help characterize the interactions between sensors and planetary regolith will be evaluated, enabling researchers to better understand the formation of small particles and layered structures in low gravity. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

University of Florida in Gainesville

  • Unique measurement approaches will be used to evaluate a new method for manufacturing metals and alloys in microgravity. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

University of Louisville in Kentucky

  • An aqueous immersion surgical system will be used to establish surgical protocols for suborbital flight, addressing the potential need for methods of treating medical emergencies in space. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

West Virginia University in Morgantown

  • A particle-based, foam-spraying 3D printer will be tested to investigate the use of ceramic and metal foams to strengthen and/or extend the in-service lifetimes of pre-existing 3D-printed structures in space, potentially reducing mission costs. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

Zandef Deksit Inc. in Los Angeles

  • A high-definition imaging system designed to capture the first ever video of a lunar lander’s final descent and landing taken from the Moon’s surface will be evaluated, with the goal of enabling the collection of data on how lander plumes will interact with and disrupt lunar regolith. The technology is planned to fly on Masten’s Xodiac.

Fostering the Commercialization of Low-Earth Orbit and Utilization of Suborbital Space

Arizona State University in Tempe

  • The ability of a three-dimensional weather imager will be tested to determine its ability to improve weather forecasting. The technology is planned to fly on a World View Enterprises high-altitude balloon.

Imec USA in San Francisco

  • A measurement system designed to monitor the effects of spaceflight on the electrical activity of human cells in space will be evaluated. The technology is planned to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard.
  • A compact digital holography system will be evaluated to assess its capabilities for capturing images at subcellular resolution without the need for optics or mechanical parts. The technology is planned to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • Microgravity behavior of beeswax and paraffin will be evaluated as possible low-cost, non-toxic alternatives to traditional rocket fuels. The technology is planned to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard.

Montana State University in Bozeman

  • Autonomous hardware to help researchers understand the impacts of launch and landing on yeast will be tested, with the goal of advancing insight into how biological organisms adapt to various stages of spaceflight. The technology is planned to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard.

Purdue University

  • A handheld, automated video control system will be tested as a possible tool for suborbital flight experiments that rely on video to monitor operations, record data, and aid post-flight technology assessments. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado

  • A broadband imaging system will be evaluated by the principal investigator aboard, capturing video through the cabin windows of a suborbital spacecraft. A biomedical harness will also be used to collect in-flight human heartrate and blood flow data. This is the first selection under the new NASA policy that allows non-NASA researchers to propose to fly with their research on NASA-supported suborbital spacecraft flights. The technologies are planned to fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system.

Spaceworks Engineering in Dunwoody, Georgia

  • A guided re-entry and recovery device will be evaluated as a means for enabling low-cost, autonomous recovery of small payloads from low-Earth orbit. The technology is planned to fly on a Near Space Corporation high-altitude balloon.

University of California in Berkeley

  • A new additive manufacturing technique will be tested to determine its ability to print both biomaterial and engineering components in the same machine during microgravity conditions. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.
  • A “lab on a chip” consisting of a programmable microfluidic analyzer will be tested to assess its ability to perform clinical assays that could be crucial for human health in space. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

University of California in Davis

  • A low-cost, three-axis CubeSat attitude control mechanism with hard disk drive reaction wheels will be tested to assess the technology’s pointing and stabilization in microgravity. The technology is planned to fly on ZERO-G’s G-Force One.

About Flight Opportunities

The Flight Opportunities program is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and managed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the solicitation and evaluation of technologies to be tested and demonstrated on commercial flight vehicles.