Lasers on the moon? Nuclear rockets? NASA awards millions for way-out tech

Nuclear thermal propulsion

Future spaceships could use nuclear thermal propulsion to get to Mars quickly. (Illustration via USNC-Tech)

NASA’s latest crop of space technology grants will fund work on projects ranging from power-beaming lasers for lunar missions to high-temperature testing of components for nuclear-powered rockets.

Those are just a couple of the 365 concepts attracting a total of $45 million in grants from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, also known as SBIR and STTR.

Jim Reuter, associate administrator for the space agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said the release of the SBIR/STTR Phase I solicitation was accelerated by two months to help small-scale tech ventures cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

“At NASA, we recognize that small businesses are facing unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic. … We hope the expedited funding helps provide a near-term boost for future success,” Reuter said today in a news release.

This year’s batch of SBIR/STTR Phase I grants will go to 289 small businesses and 47 research institutions across the country. More than 30% of the awards are going to first-time NASA SBIR/STTR recipients.

Phase I grants provide up to $125,000 for establishing the merit and feasibility of tech innovations that could further NASA’s goals for aeronautical development and space exploration. Phase I SBIR contracts run for six months, while the STTR contracts last for 13 months. Recipients may become eligible for further funding, depending on their progress in Phase I.

Read more: PowerLight’s ambitions for laser power beaming extend to the moon

You can scan the full list of SBIR and STTR grants on NASA’s website. Here are the seven Washington state ventures receiving SBIR funding:

LaserMotive, d.b.a. PowerLight Technologies, Kent: Developing an efficient laser power beaming system for a variety of lunar mission scenarios, including crewed bases and autonomous rovers.

Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. – Technologies, Seattle: Designing a scalable, ultra-high-temperature facility for testing material properties and evaluating performance, specialized for space nuclear reactor core and fuel components. Last month, USNC-Tech received a separate grant from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program to look into building a compact spacecraft for studying interstellar objects.

American Daedalus LLC, Puyallup: Investigating the feasibility of infrasonic monitoring as a method for detecting aircraft-scale atmospheric turbulence.

Bechamo LLC, Bothell: Optimizing the integrated design of aircraft and flight controls for electric and hybrid aircraft, including delivery drones and air taxis.

Convergent Manufacturing Technologies US, Seattle: Optimizing the production of composite parts for tailored manufacturing processes.

Okean Solutions, Seattle: Improving the tools for fault management system modeling by integrating Okean Solutions’ MONSID system with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s CAESAR platform.

Tunoptix, Seattle: Reducing the size, weight and power needs of hyperspectral imaging systems through the use of meta-optics and computational imaging.

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