NASA Selects Experimental Commercial Suborbital Flight Payloads

Image Credit: NASA's Commercial Space Partners
Image Credit: NASA’s Commercial Space Partners

In yet another effort to strengthen ties with emerging commercial space companies, NASA has tapped 13 technology payloads to fly on commercial vehicles as part of its Flight Opportunities program. These range from rockets and space planes to balloons. NASA hopes that these flights will allow those participating in this program to demonstrate the capabilities of their technologies to the very edge—but not all the way to space.

The companies selected to fly these experiments hail from some very familiar players within the commercial space industry. Zero-G Corporation, based out of Las Vegas, N.M., Masten Space Systems, based out of Mojave, Calif., and Virgin Galactic, based out of Las Cruces, N.M., make up the better-known firms, along with Near Space Corp, based out of Tillamook, Ore., and UP Aerospace, based out of Highlands Ranch, Colo.

“These payloads represent more real progress in our goal of fostering a viable market for American commercial reusable suborbital platforms—access to near space that provides the innovation needed for cutting-edge space technology research and development,” said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program. “American leadership in the commercial suborbital flight market will prove to benefit technology development across NASA, universities, industries, and in our new technology economy.”

A variety of payloads will be tested out during these flights. The companies providing the payloads similarly hail from firms whose names are known to a greater and lesser extent within the NewSpace community. Google Lunar X PRIZE team Astrobotic Technology will have its payload checked out on a vehicle that will launch and land vertically. Meanwhile the University of Maryland’s Resonant Inductive Near-field Generation System payload will be tested in parabolic flights.

Of the 13 payloads selected, nine will fly on parabolic aircraft flights, granting each a brief stay in weightlessness. Two others will be carried aloft by high-altitude balloons which will ferry them to a height of some 100,000 feet. One will fly on a suborbital launch vehicle and balloon, and the final one will be launched and landed vertically.

A NASA press release listed the payloads along with their principal investigators as follows:

Flight on a parabolic aircraft:
— “Structural Dynamics Test of STACER Antenna Deployment in Microgravity,” Kerri Cahoy of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge
— “UAH ChargerSat-2 Parabolic Flight Testing,” Francis Wessling of the University of Alabama in Huntsville
— “High Eccentric Resistive Overload (HERO) Device Demonstration during Parabolic Flight,” Aaron Weaver of NASA’s Glenn Research Center  in Cleveland
— “Assessing Otolith-Organ Function with Vestibular Evoked Myogenic Potentials (VEMPs) in Parabolic Flight,” Mark Shelhamer of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore
— “On the Performance of a Nanocatalyst-based Direct Ammonia Alkaline Fuel Cell (DAAFC) under Microgravity Conditions for Water Reclamation and Energy Applications,” Carlos Cabrera of the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan
— “Dynamic and Static Behavior of a Flexible Fuel Hose in Zero-G,” Allyson Buker of Jackson and Tull in Washington
— “In-Flight Lab Analysis Technology Demonstration in Reduced Gravity,” Emily Nelson of Glenn
— “Caging System for Drag-free Satellites,” Robert Byer of Stanford University in California
— “Reduced Gravity Flight Demonstration of the Resonant Inductive Near-field Generation System,” Raymond Sedwick of the University of Maryland in College Park

Flight on a vertical launch and landing suborbital vehicle:
— “Autolanding for Robotic Precursor Missions,” Kevin Peterson of Astrobotic Technology Inc. in Pittsburgh

Flight on a high altitude balloon:
— “Deployable Rigid Adjustable Guided Final Landing Approach Pinions,” Jonathan Powers of Masten Space Systems Inc. in Mojave,  Calif.
— “Guided Parafoil High Altitude Research,” Allen Lowry of Airborne  Systems North America of CA Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif.

Flights on multiple platforms:
— “Flight Testing of a UAT ADS-B Transmitter Prototype for Commercial Space Transportation Using Reusable Launch Vehicles,” Richard Stansbury of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach,  Fla.

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