Moondust buster? NASA funds far-out research projects, including four in Washington state

An artist’s conception shows astronauts at work on the moon. (NASA Illustration)

How do you keep moondust from gumming up the works in NASA’s future spacesuits and spacecraft? That’s one of the issues addressed in the latest batch of projects backed by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program.

“NASA is working on ambitious, groundbreaking missions that require innovative solutions from a variety of sources – especially our small businesses,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said Thursday in a news release. “Small businesses have the creative edge and expertise needed to help our agency solve our common and complex challenges, and they are crucial to maintaining NASA’s leadership in space.”

Four SBIR research contracts will go to Washington state companies. And two of those contracts are going to Everett-based Off Planet Research.

One Off Planet project focuses on the development of a flexible fiber seal that will hold up in dusty environments. The seal would make use of stainless steel and/or basalt fibers that align and interlock when compressed, conforming to surfaces to keep dust out.

“Traditional soft seals do not hold up well in space, while hard seals often restrict sealing capabilities or mobility,” Melissa Roth, lead researcher at Off Planet Research, told GeekWire in an email. “Our dust seal does not rely on elastomers or polymers that fail due to intense temperatures or volatile depletion in the vacuum of space.  The materials are resistant to many chemicals and oxidizers, making them ideal for a wide range of use cases.”

Off Planet’s other project addresses one of the requirements for a next-generation NASA spacesuit designed for use during spacewalks and moonwalks. Next week NASA is due to announce who’ll be making the spacesuit, known as the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit or xEMU.

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“We will be developing a removable cover for the Service and Cooling Connector (SCC) on the xEMU that will protect the SCC from dust intrusion while operating on the lunar surface,” Roth said. The SCC serves as the spacesuit’s main interface for water and oxygen flow.

Roth said there could be additional uses for dust protection technology. “We foresee additional applications as a port cover on commercial rovers and landers to increase the life span of interconnecting systems, such as the xEMUs, rovers, and ISRU [in-situ resource utilization] plants,” she said.

Kent-based Starfish Space is receiving a Phase I contract for its CETACEAN relative navigation software, which is designed to determine the relative position of two spacecraft during proximity operations. NASA funding would go toward improving computer vision image processing, and toward blending vision data with other sensor data.

Starfish Space was founded in 2019 by Trevor Bennett and Austin Link, two veterans of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. In an email, Link told GeekWire that the SBIR contract will be “a great opportunity for us to work more closely with NASA.”

“CETACEAN is a key technology for Starfish Space as we develop the Otter space tug,” Link said. “It’s one of the technologies that will help the Otter be particularly efficient for its two core missions: life extension for GEO [geosynchronous Earth orbit] satellites and debris removal in LEO [low Earth orbit]. We believe our technologies like CETACEAN also enable a new paradigm for how humans can operate in space: one where dynamic, autonomous interaction become common. Imagine, building JWST on-orbit rather than risking $8 billion on a single launch!”

Seattle-based Hover Inc. won a contract to advance the development of its miniaturized, ruggedized computing platform for autonomous and semi-autonomous aircraft. “The platform hosts a certifiable real-time operating system that can run many different types of autonomy software applications, including detect-and-avoid concurrently,” company founder James Lawson told GeekWire in an email.

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In its proposal, Hover says its technology could be incorporated into NASA experimental aircraft as well as commercial drones that aim to make use of the national airspace system. The company was founded in 2019 and is working in partnership with another Washington state aerospace company, Sagetech Avionics.

Each Phase I SBIR contract has a value of $150,000, which is a 20% increase over the previous funding level, and covers a six-month period. Phase I contracts are designed to help small businesses mature their technologies, opening the way for further development and commercialization in later phases of the SBIR program.

NASA also awarded a new round of Phase I contracts in a parallel program known as Small Business Technology Transfer, or STTR. The space agency said it selected 333 proposals from 257 small businesses and 41 research institutions for SBIR and STTR Phase I funding, adding up to nearly $50 million nationwide.

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