NASA’s SBIR program regularly funds cash to promote small businesses and research programs, and the list of award winners is always interesting. There are a dozen companies and proposals from this batch specifically to force or suggest new directions for mission and industry in space.
Sadly, these brief descriptions are often available. These things are often so early that there is nothing to show but a napkin has some equations and a drawing on the back – but NASA knows when it works. (You can learn more about how to apply for the SBIR grant here.)
Autonomous deorbiting system
Martian Sky Technologies won the Baronium Award with Bespoke Innovative Technologies or DeorBIT for decrypting Earth Orbit for Reposing, or attempting to create an autonomous clutter removal system for low Earth orbit. Its purpose is to monitor a given volume and remove any intrusive objects while clearing the area for construction or occupation by another craft.
Ultrasonic additive manufacturing
There are many proposals for “on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing”, or 3D printing, welding, and other things critical to the emerging field of OSAM. One I found interesting is ultrasonic uses, which is strange to me because clearly, in space, there is no working environment for ultrasonic (I think they are going to have thought of that). But such a transcendental approach can actually become a new approach.
Robots see each other’s backs
OSAM working will likely coordinate multiple robotic platforms, something that is quite difficult on Earth. TRAClabs are a way to “increase perceptual feedback and reduce cognitive load on operators”, not used by autonomously dynamic robots in positions where they can provide useful approaches to others. It’s a simple idea and fits in with the way humans do things – if you’re not the person doing the actual work, you automatically get out of the way and in a good position to see what’s going on. .
3d printed hall effect thrusters
Hall effect thrusters are a highly efficient form of electric propulsion that can be very useful in some types of in-space maneuvers. But they are not particularly powerful, and it seems likely that existing manufacturing technology will not be sufficient for large construction. Element 3D aims to accomplish this by developing a new additive manufacturing technology and cobalt-iron feedstock, allowing them to make these things as big as they want.
Venus is an attractive place, but its surface is extremely hostile to machines in the way they are made here on Earth. Even a hardened Mars rover such as Perseverance will succumb in minutes, seconds, even in the heat of 800 seconds. And in many ways they fail that the batteries they use will overheat and possibly explode. Talostec and the University of Delaware are looking at an unusual type of battery that will operate at high temperatures using atmospheric CO2 as a reactant.
Neuromorphic cum-SWaP radio
Every gram and cubic centimeter counts when you’re going into space, and once you’re out, so does every millivat. This is why there is always a push to switch legacy systems to alternatives for reduced size, weight, and power (low-swappy). Intelligence is taking over part of the radio stack, using neuroimorphic (ie mindlessly – but not in a sci-fi way) computing to simplify and shrink the part that directs incoming signals and Directs. Each of the rescued chickens is another spacecraft designer who can work elsewhere, and may also receive some performance benefits.
Making space safe with LIDAR
Astrobiotics are becoming a common name to see in NASA’s next few years of international missions, and its research division is looking at ways to make both Rover smarter and surface vehicles such as smarter and safer using LIDAR. One proposal for evaluation and repair purposes is a LIDAR system, which focuses on imaging single small objects in a sparse view (eg scanning a satellite against the vastness of space). The second involves a deep learning technique applied to both LIDAR and traditional imagery to identify obstacles on the planet’s surface. The team for that one is currently working on VIPER’s water hunting rover for the purpose of 2023 lunar landing.
Monitoring of space farms
Bloomfield monitors agriculture automatically, but plants growing in orbit or on the surface or on Mars are slightly different than those on Earth. But this controlled environment is looking forward to the expansion of agriculture, which is to say that the small experimental farms we use have seen how plants grow under strange conditions such as microorganisms. They plan to use multi-spectral imaging and intensive learning analysis to continuously monitor plant conditions so that astronauts don’t have to write “leaf 25 grew up” every day in a notebook.
The Artemis program to go to the moon is “to live”, but we have not been able to locate that last part. Researchers are focusing on how to re-launch and launch rockets from the lunar surface that do not include everything, and the goal of the exploration architecture is to move to a smaller piece, which is literally a launcher launch The form has to be made brick by brick. It proposes an integrated system that takes lunar dust or regolith, melts it down, then binds it to bricks where needed. It is either bricks of the earth or I can tell you that it is not a good option.
Several other companies and research agencies proposed construction and handling related to regoliths. It was one of a handful of subjects, some of which have even a little bit of weeds to go into.
Another topic was technologies for exploring the world of ice like Europa. Unlike Venus, an ice planet would in many ways be fatal to “normal” rovers and the conditions require different approaches to power, sensing, and traversal.
NASA is not immune to the new trend of swarms, be they satellites or aircraft. These swarms take too much time to manage, and they require a robust computing architecture behind them if they function as a single distributed machine (which is the general idea). Many companies are looking at ways to accomplish this.
You can also see the rest of NASA’s latest SBIR grant, and technology transfer program selection on the dedicated site here. And if you’re curious how to get yourself some of that federal cash, read below.