Houston firms get NASA funding for moon-hopping robot, mini laboratory

NASA is providing funding to a moon-hopping robot and mini laboratory being developed in Houston.

Intuitive Machines is receiving $41.6 million to develop a robot that can hop into craters and photograph hard-to-reach crevices that might be worthy of exploration. Alpha Space Test and Research Alliance is receiving $22.1 million to develop a shoe box-sized facility where potential lunar technologies will be tested against the moon’s dust and harsh radiation.

Both companies are working toward NASA’s goal of creating long-term, sustainable operations on the moon. And they were among the 14 U.S. companies selected Wednesday to receive $370 million through NASA’s Tipping Point solicitation, which provides funding for technologies on the cusp of maturation that could be brought to market for government and commercial uses.

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“This is the most Tipping Point proposals NASA has selected at once and by far the largest collective award value,” NASA Associate Administrator for Space Technology Jim Reuter said in a news release. “We are excited to see our investments and collaborative partnerships bring about new technologies for the moon and beyond while also benefiting the commercial sector.”

The majority of the funding, $256.1 million, is for in-space demonstrations of cryogenic fluid management technologies. The ability to store super-cold liquids — whether they are launched from Earth or produced in space — for an extended period and to transfer the propellant from one tank to another will be crucial for sustainable operations on the moon, according to the news release. Future missions could use frozen water from the moon’s poles to make fuel by separating the hydrogen and oxygen.

Intuitive Machines’ hopper will be like a lander within a lander. The company’s Nova-C lander is being developed to carry commercial cargo and NASA-provided payloads to the lunar surface, with its first mission slated to launch in the fourth quarter of 2021. On subsequent missions, the navigation system that guides Nova-C to the moon’s surface will break away from the lander and become the hopper. The company’s demonstration mission for NASA, which could launch as early as 2022, will be capable of carrying a 2.2 pound payload more than 1.5 miles. It will hop into a crater unreachable by a rover and take pictures.

To help create a sustained presence on the moon, the yet-to-be-named hopper (which will be the size of a carry-on suit case) could scout broad areas in search of scientifically interesting regions, ice that could be turned into rocket fuel or drinking water, and places suitable for human habitation.

“This allows you to hop and travel a kilometer away from the lander,” said Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines. “Then hop a second time or a third time and explore much farther away from the lander than a typical rover can do.”

For Alpha Space, its Space Science Test and Evaluation Facility (SSTEF) is a proving ground for companies. It will be mounted onto a lander and allow organizations to test versions of their technology in the harsh lunar environment prior to launching a finished product into space.

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“You’ll have proof that your technology operates well on the moon,” said Mark Shumbera, director of business development for Alpha Space. “It’s going to greatly expand the number and types of technologies that will be available for use in the Artemis program and beyond.”

Alpha Space also owns a testing platform attached to the outside of the International Space Station, and the company is developing a payload that will be launched to the moon prior to SSTEF to expose materials to lunar dust. Alpha Space will use technology and what it learns from these two assets to develop SSTEF.



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