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Throughout 2017, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) made noteworthy progress in maturing and demonstrating technologies to bolster America’s space agenda, while setting the stage for vital advancements within the next several years.
From expanding the utilization of space in low-Earth orbit and enabling new scientific discoveries, to advancing capabitilties for robotic and human exploration of deep space destinations – STMD is executing a broad cross-cutting agenda, one that is pioneering groundbreaking technologies and knowhow.
The space agency’s STMD focuses on infusion of technologies to advance capabilities for NASA’s near and far-term exploration and science mission needs. Furthermore, the directorate works with commercial aerospace firms, large and small, as well as academia to help fuel the nation's innovation economy.
“We made significant progress in 2017 and we’re poised in the next one to three years to add to that growth, particularly through space flight demonstrations and transitioning new technologies and capabilities into our space program,” explains Stephen Jurczyk, Associate Administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate.
Jurczyk adds that flying technology to demonstrate its merits is not always necessary. However, to reach what’s termed a Technology Readiness Level 7 status, performance of a prototype space technology in an operational environment – on the ground or in space – is essential.
“That provides a direct infusion path to a science mission, perhaps to a human exploration system, or an industry application,” Jurczyk says.
A case in point is the launch and orbit of two CubeSat missions in 2017 developed as part of STMD’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program. In partnership with The Aerospace Corporation, one of these missions consists of two miniature satellites that have the potential to make a big impact on future space missions. Currently circling Earth is a pair of Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration CubeSats. They are investigating data transmission to the ground via ultra-small lasers, and are also tasked to maneuver in close proximity to each other during their flight.
Similarly, now in orbit is the Integrated Solar Array and Reflectarray Antenna mission, developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This CubeSat is built to enable high speed radio downlink of data for ultra-small spacecraft thanks to its novel antenna array design that utilizes printed circuit board patches arranged to focus the signal in a similar manner as a parabolic dish.
Jurczyk says that NASA’s STMD has multiple models for engaging industry in public/private partnerships.
“The key is to understand what can enable both the NASA mission and also enable business objectives,” Jurczyk observes. “Particularly for small companies, their advantage is moving fast and being agile. We’re working with companies to develop technologies to lower cost, provide more capability and improve reliability. These types of relationships help reach one of our goals to develop a more robust set of activities in low-Earth orbit, or LEO, an objective we call expanding the LEO economy.”
The 2017 portfolio for STMD is broad. Presently, STMD has over 750 project activities led by more than 400 companies and over 350 activities led by more than 100 universities. In addition, STMD is partnered with nine other government agencies or departments as well as four international organizations.
Jurczyk underscores STMD’s work on reducing risk in the burgeoning field of satellite servicing. For example, the Restore-L mission involves a robotic spacecraft to refuel a U.S government satellite in low-Earth orbit, demonstrating a suite of satellite-servicing technologies that potentially can help jumpstart a vibrant U.S. satellite servicing industry.
“That means refueling, perhaps repairing, reconfiguring and even replacing systems on satellites. These capabilities are also very important for NASA’s architecture for human exploration of the solar system,” Jurczyk relates.
Likewise, 2017 saw movement forward on Robotic Refueling Mission 3 (RRM3). Set to fly in 2018 to the International Space Station, the RRM3 project is slated to transfer and re-freeze cryogenic fluid, and also demonstrate the transfer of Xenon, the propellant of choice for use in future refuelable Solar Electric Propulsion vehicles.
Game changing challenges
Under STMD’s Game Changing Development program there was the June 2017 launch of the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT) instrument. Now onboard the International Space Station (ISS), this hardware is part of the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) instrument now operating aboard the orbiting complex, Jurczyk explains. The goal of the NICER/SEXTANT mission is to investigate pulsars and demonstrate real-time, autonomous spacecraft navigation using pulsars as beacons.
“I am very proud to see Game Changing Development work maturing into technology demonstrations,” says Jurczyk. “Another example is the very big challenge of deep space optical communications with respect to pointing and stabilization.”
To that end, a flight system called the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) package, Jurczyk adds, is to fly on NASA’s Psyche mission to a unique metal asteroid with launch in 2022. DSOC will demonstrate optical communications far from Earth, he notes, out to distances of 0.1 to 2.5 astronomical units (AU). One AU is approximately 150 million kilometers-or the distance between the Earth and Sun.
Art of the possible
In summing up his review of 2017, Jurczyk also highlights three STMD-sponsored NASA Centennial Challenges held to directly engage the public in the process of advanced technology development.
The Cube Quest Challenge, for instance, selected teams to design, build and deliver flight-qualified, small satellites capable of advanced operations near and beyond the Moon.
In 2017, NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge entered a new phase to spur citizen inventors to create or develop off-Earth habitats using local indigenous materials with, or without, recyclable materials.
Lastly, NASA picked four teams of citizen inventors at the Space Robotics Challenge. The teams developed software to improve the autonomous capabilities of the space agency’s humanoid R5 robot, enabling it to perform specific tasks that may aid future astronauts during space travel or after landing on other planets.
“One of the reasons why we do these challenges is to get broad participation and contribution to our program,” Jurczyk points out. “It really allows us to see the art of the possible, tapping into different avenues of creativity, innovation…beyond our usual contributors to space technology advancement.”
Illustrative of STMD’s continual drive for revolutionary impact on future aerospace capabilities is the selection in early 2017 of the first-ever Space Technology Research Institutes.
The Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space (CUBES) will explore technologies that allow long-duration mission crews to manufacture the products they need, rather than relying on the current practice of resupply missions from Earth.
Another Space Technology Research Institute established is the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design (US-COMP). It is delving into carbon nanotube-based, ultra-high strength, lightweight aerospace structural material—work that could lead to a significant change to the design paradigm for space structures.
“These university-led, multi-disciplinary research programs promote the synthesis of science, engineering and other disciplines to achieve specific research objectives with credible expected outcomes within five years,” Jurczyk says. At the same time, he suggests, these institutes will expand the U.S. talent base in areas of research and development with broader applications beyond aerospace.
“Again, 2017 was a year of significant progress. STMD is positioned over the next few years to continue its space flight demonstrations and to infuse new technologies and capabilities that will enhance and enable future NASA missions,” Jurczyk concludes.