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NASA to help SpaceX, Blue Origin, and more develop technologies for Moon and Mars travel

The Verge logo The Verge 7/30/2019 Loren Grush

As NASA forges ahead to the Moon — and eventually to Mars — the agency is hoping to get some help from the commercial space industry. Today, NASA announced new partnerships with various aerospace organizations, aimed at advancing technologies related to landing on other planets, navigating the lunar surface, transferring propellant in space, and more — all of which could be critical for future missions.

Ten companies now hold a total of 19 partnerships with NASA through the agency’s Announcement of Collaborative Opportunity initiative, or ACO. In October, NASA put out a call for proposals from the industry, asking them to detail different technologies they’d like to develop through the program. Now, the companies that have been selected will be given expertise and resources from various NASA centers to help mature these space technologies — at no cost to the companies themselves.

expertise and resources from various NASA centers

One of the big winners of the initiative is Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which has three development partnerships with NASA through the program. The company recently unveiled a lander concept called Blue Moon to take humans to the lunar surface. Now, Blue Origin will develop a new system for navigating and landing on the Moon with NASA’s help, as well as test out new materials that could be used on its lunar lander’s engine. The company will also try to develop a new power system that could help keep its Blue Moon lander up and running during the Moon’s nighttime — a two-week period of total darkness during which temperatures can plunge to -280 degrees Fahrenheit (-173 degrees Celsius).

Meanwhile, Blue Origin’s competitor SpaceX is also working with NASA through the ACO program to develop technologies that will be vital for the company’s future Starship rocket. The vehicle is currently being developed at SpaceX to take cargo and humans to deep space destinations. Now, SpaceX will be getting help from the agency to figure out how to land large rockets like Starship on the surface of the Moon, and the company will also study how much lunar dust these landings kick up. Additionally, SpaceX is getting NASA help to figure out how to transfer rocket propellants in space, something that is necessary to send Starship beyond Earth’s near vicinity. The Starship design calls for the vehicle to get “filled up” with propellant while in orbit around Earth, so that it has all the fuel it needs to break free of our planet’s gravity.

Developing ways to transfer propellant in space could also be a game changer for other companies beyond SpaceX. For instance, many companies are hoping to mine the Moon’s water and turn it into rocket propellant that can be stored in so-called “depots” in space. That way, rockets could meet up with these depots and refuel to travel farther distances. But the only way this concept works is if engineers can develop autonomous spacecraft that can transfer super cold and sometimes volatile propellants in space, something that’s particularly difficult in an environment without gravity. NASA has been working on this technology, and a few spacecraft have already demonstrated this capability in space. But the process is far from mature.

these partnerships are just getting started

Other companies like Maxar will also work to develop some potential key space technologies, including new types of solar panels and robots that can assemble themselves while in orbit. And some groups will work on technologies related to reusing rockets, something that SpaceX has focused on in recent years. For instance, Sierra Nevada will work on a method for recovering the upper portion of a rocket after it launches from Earth — a feat that SpaceX hasn’t attempted yet.

All of these technologies sound very exciting, and some are crucial for achieving NASA’s goal of sending people to the Moon and Mars. However, these partnerships are just getting started, and it’s unclear when any of these technologies will reach operational status. Ultimately, NASA is hoping that by giving some assistance to the industry, the agency can avoid the high cost of independently developing these capabilities — and then reap the benefits of these technologies when they’re fully grown.

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