NASA awards $150m to 11 groups exploring the Moon

NASA is distributing $150 million between 11 US organizations developing technology and infrastructure supporting long-term human exploration on the Moon for its Artemis missions and beyond.

Artemis is the space agency's most ambitious programme to date, marking the first return of astronauts to the Moon since the historic Apollo missions ended in 1972. NASA wants to go further than "one small step" with Artemis and has set itself a goal of establishing a permanent human presence on the satellite.

NASA needs to build a self-sustaining environment to help humans survive, work, and communicate with Earth hundreds of thousands of kilometers away. The 11 entities that have received funding as part of the space agency's "Tipping Point" opportunity are:
  • Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, $34.6 million – LunaGrid-Lite: Demonstration of tethered, scalable lunar power transmission;
  • Big Metal Additive of Denver, $5.4 million – Improving cost and availability of space habitat structures with additive manufacturing;
  • Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, $34.7 million – In-situ resource utilization-based power on the Moon;
  • Freedom Photonics of Santa Barbara, California, $1.6 million – Highly efficient Watt-class direct diode lidar for remote sensing;
  • Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colorado, $9.1 million – Joining demonstrations in space;
  • Redwire of Jacksonville, Florida, $12.9 million – Infrastructure manufacturing with lunar regolith;
  • Protoinnovations of Pittsburgh, $6.2 million – The Mobility Coordinator: An onboard commercial software architecture for sustainable, safe, efficient, and effective lunar surface mobility operations;
  • Psionic of Hampton, Virginia, $3.2 million – Validating no-light lunar landing technology that reduces risk, size, weight, power, and cost;
  • United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado, $25 million – Vulcan engine reuse scale hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator technology demonstration;
  • Varda Space Industries of El Segundo, California, $1.9 million – Conformal phenolic impregnated carbon ablator tech transfer and commercial production;
  • Zeno Power Systems of Washington, $15 million – Universal americium-241 radioisotope power supply for Artemis.
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The technologies split with five recipients focused on building vital infrastructure for power, transportation, and habitats on the Moon, and six developing technologies for exploring space and monitoring the Earth. 

For example, Blue Origin said it aims to provide a demonstration of its molten regolith electrolysis system in 2026. The idea is to process the abundant lunar regolith into iron, silicon, and aluminum for solar cells, and the process also produces oxygen as an added bonus. 

"Harnessing the vast resources in space to benefit Earth is part of our mission, and we're inspired and humbled to receive this investment from NASA to advance our innovation," said Pat Remias, vice president, Capabilities Directorate of Space Systems Development at the Bezos-backed space biz, in a statement. "First we return humans to the Moon, then we start to 'live off the land.'"

Also included in such schemes is Astrobotic Technology, which plans to send its CubeRover to lay down a high-voltage power line stretching one kilometer.

Meanwhile, the other five groups developing capabilities to support space exploration are focused on different areas like remote sensing, measurement, and rocketry.

For example, United Launch Alliance has been working on inflatable heat shield technology to help protect rocket components so they can be reused for future flights. It has been awarded $25 million. Zeno Power Systems will get $15 million to build a battery powered by americium-241, a radioactive isotope, for future space missions. 

It may also be possible to assemble some of these projects remotely on the lunar surface using robots controlled by astronauts orbiting the Moon.

In a demonstration testing telerobotics technology, astronaut Frank Rubio controlled a robot from the International Space Station on behalf of the European Space Agency.

"Our partnerships with industry could be a cornerstone of humanity's return to the Moon under Artemis," said Dr Prasun Desai, acting associate administrator for Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

"By creating new opportunities for streamlined awards, we hope to push crucial technologies over the finish line so they can be used in future missions. These innovative partnerships will help advance capabilities that will enable sustainable exploration on the Moon."

NASA said it will fund a total of $150 million across its 11 partnerships. Each partner, however, is expected to invest at least 10 to 25 percent of the contract into its own project – depending on the size of its business. 

"Partnering with the commercial space industry lets us at NASA harness the strength of American innovation and ingenuity," NASA administrator Bill Nelson added. "The technologies that NASA is investing in today have the potential to be the foundation of future exploration." ®