NASA Awards Universities for Lunar Construction Tech


The United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration has recently announced the selection of three university-led proposals for the development of technologies for living and working on the Moon.

The selection of projects arrives as NASA prepares to return astronauts to space for long-term exploration with Artemis.

Lunar Infrastructure

According to NASA, the proposals awarded for the research will look into the extraction of lunar resources, autonomous construction methods and developing electronics capable of working under the Moon's extremely cold temperatures.

Each proposal was selected under the second Lunar Surface Technology Research (LuSTR) solicitation and aims to harness the creativity of the nation's university researchers to cultivate technologies for lunar infrastructure. LuSTR is part of NASA's Space Technology Research Grants program, which supports groundbreaking research in advanced space technology by academic researchers.

“Creating the technologies we need to explore the Moon requires leveraging expertise from and partnering with academia and industry alike,” said Dr. Prasun Desai, Deputy Associate Administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“These projects show the integral role that universities will play in building humanity's sustainable presence on the Moon.”

Tasked with the goal of developing robots capable of completing construction projects, such as building habitats and landing pads, is The Colorado School of Mines. This effort is being led by principal investigator Christopher Dreyer, who plans to develop tools and methods for autonomous construction on the Moon's surface.

While construction will be an important aspect of staying on the Moon for long periods of time, NASA has realized that sending supplies from Earth will be expensive and time-consuming. It is that reason that they have awarded Missouri University of Science and Technology for in-situ resource utilization. For this research, led by principal investigator Leslie Gertsch, teams will work to develop magnetic and electrostatic technologies for extracting and efficiently separating calcium- and aluminum-containing minerals from the Moon's soil, also called regolith.

Another obstacle that astronauts will have to face while working on the Moon is the planet’s extremely cold temperatures, which have been reported to plummet hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit below zero at night or within cratered areas that never see direct sunlight. Auburn University, led by principal investigator Michael Hamilton, has been awarded for the development of new electronics that are highly reliable and tolerant of low temperatures.

Each team will receive up to $2 million, awarded as grants, over two years to develop their proposed technologies.

Other Awarded Space Tech Research

In November 2020, NASA announced that it had selected 17 American companies for 20 partnerships to mature industry-developed space technologies.

The technologies are also expected to be used on the Moon and beyond through the STMD's 2020 Announcement of Collaboration Opportunity. The selected proposals are relevant to technology topic areas outlined in the solicitation, including cryogenic fluid management and propulsion; advanced propulsion; sustainable power; in-situ propellant and consumable production; intelligent/resilient systems and advanced robotics; advanced materials and structures; entry, descent, and landing; and small spacecraft technologies.

Specifically, NASA and industry teams are working on designs for a 3D printing system for NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, test a simple method for removing dust from planetary solar arrays, mature a first-stage rocket recovery system for a small satellite launch provider, and more.

The selections will result in unfunded Space Act Agreements between the companies and NASA. The period of performance will be negotiated for each agreement, with an expected duration of between 12 and 24 months. The total estimated value of agency resources to support the agreements is approximately $15.5 million.

That same month, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama, announced the selection of nearby Drake State Community and Technical College for help with 3D-printing technologies research that plans to help prepare sustainable Artemis operations on the moon by the end of the decade (and for future human missions to Mars).

Drake State submitted a proposal to Marshall's seventh competitive Cooperative Agreement Notice for Dual-Use Technology Development solicitation.

The award will fund collaborative research in support of NASA's Moon to Mars Planetary Autonomous Construction Technologies project, which aims to develop, deliver and demonstrate on-demand capabilities to protect astronauts and create infrastructure on the lunar surface via construction of landing pads, habitats, shelters, roadways, berms and blast shields using lunar regolith-based materials.

The research team that will test the 3D-printed concrete structures consists of students, instructors and administrators from the college’s Engineering Design program.

As part of the project, the research team will collaborate with ICON, an innovative 3D printing construction company in Austin, that is working with NASA on early research and development of a space-based construction system that could support future exploration of the Moon and Mars. Additionally, instructors in the Engineering Design program will develop curriculum related to the research project and add the specialty classes to the college’s course catalog.

Earlier that year, in February, Westminster, Colorado-based space technology company Maxar Technologies was awarded a $142 million contract NASA to develop a robotic technology capable of assembly and manufacturing whilst in orbit.

The company was previously part of NASA’s Tipping Point partnership—announced back in 2015—but now includes partners Tethers Unlimited (Bothell, Washington), West Virginia Robotic Technology Center (Morgantown, West Virginia) and NASA’s Langley Research Center (Hampton, Virginia).

In changing the development’s name from Dragonfly to SPIDER (Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot), the payload includes a lightweight 16-foot-long robotic arm which will be used to assemble several elements to form a functional 9-foot-tall communications antenna. GeekWire reports that this procedure was already carried out successfully during a ground demonstration in 2017.

Additionally, the payload will also manufacture a 32-foot lightweight composite beam using MakerSat technology developed by Tethers. The technology is reportedly backed by $875,000 in financial support from NASA, which arrived in the form of two Small Business Innovation Research grants.

Once robotically assembled, the antenna will be able to conduct Ka-band transmission with a ground station, while the manufacturing element intends to verify the capabilities of in-space construction.

The spacecraft is expected to launch sometime in the mid-2020s.


Tagged categories: Aerospace; Awards and honors; Building materials; Colleges and Universities; Construction; Good Technical Practice; Grants; NA; NASA; North America; Program/Project Management; Research; Research and development; Robotics

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