NASA puts $50M into creating fusion thrusters, space robots and much more

Credit: geekwire.com

An artist’s conception shows a fusion-driven rocket powering a probe toward Mars. (MSNW / University of Washingtion Illustration)

Fusion-driven rockets, remote control systems for space robots, and satellites that build themselves up in orbit are among the made-in-Washington projects getting a share of $49.9 million in NASA grants.


Seven businesses in Washington state will benefit from NASA’s latest round of Small Business Innovation Research grants and Small Business Technology Transfer grants, announced today.


The two programs, known as SBIR and STTR, are aimed at encouraging the development of commercial innovations that could come in handy for NASA’s space missions.


“The SBIR and STTR program’s selection of nearly 400 proposals for further development is a testament to NASA’s support of American innovation by small businesses and research institutions,” Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for space technology at NASA Headquarters, said in today’s announcement.



In all, 399 proposals from 277 small businesses and 44 research institutions across the U.S. were chosen for Phase I funding, out of a total of 1,621 submissions.


The next step is for NASA to negotiate contracts with the winners. SBIR contracts last for six months, while STTR contracts last for 12 months, both with maximum funding of $125,000.


Ten contracts will go to the seven Washington-based teams. One of the companies, Bothell-based Tethers Unlimited, had four of its SBIR proposals accepted:



MakerSat: This small-satellite mission is aimed at demonstrating techniques for “growing” structures that could increase a satellite’s size by a factor of 10 to 100. The Phase I work would concentrate on developing the architecture for such a mission.
Automated X-Link for Orbital Networking Connector: The AXON connector is a concept for a device that could link up spacecraft components autonomously in space.
Metal Advanced Manufacturing Bot-Assisted Assembly: The MAMBA process would provide an alternative to 3-D printing in space. Instead, metal could be formed into an ingot, and then milled and machined to produce a precision part.
COBRA-Bee Carpal-Wrist Gimbal for Astrobee: COBRA-Bee would serve as a robotic manipulator for Tethers Unlimited’s Astrobee free-flying satellite. The Phase I grant would cover design work for an assembly that could serve as the “wrist” of a robotic hand.

Six awards were made to these other Washington state teams:



BluHaptics (Seattle): SBIR grant to work on control software for remote robotic operations. Such a software platform could improve the performance of robots for in-space manufacturing, deep-space exploration and satellite servicing. The technology could come into play on Earth for deep-sea oil and gas exploration.
Kymeta Government Solutions (Redmond): SBIR grant to develop a low-size, low-power Ka-band antenna that can be used for transmitting data within constellations of small satellites.
MSNW (Redmond) and the University of Washington: STTR grant for work on a propulsion system powered by direct conversion of fusion energy. Such fusion-driven rockets could open the way for rapid missions to Mars and other deep-space destinations.
Sienna Technologies (Woodinville): SBIR grant to develop long-life, advanced green monopropellant thrusters for robotic science missions.
Systima Technologies (Kirkland) and UW: STTR grant for development of a low-cost launch propulsion stage and deployment bus for small satellites.
Voxa (also known as Mochii, based in Seattle): SBIR grant to demonstrate a portable spectroscopic scanning electron microscope that could be used on the International Space Station.

For the full list of winning proposals and their sponsors, including a plan to design drills capable of probing the hidden oceans of icy Europa and Enceladus, check out NASA’s lists for the SBIR and STTR programs.




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