NASA awards $10M to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin for hydrogen-oxygen storage tech

An artist’s conception shows Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander on the lunar surface. (Blue Origin Illustration)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is on the top of the funding list for a newly announced round of “Tipping Point” funding from NASA for technologies that could be applied to exploration and settlement of the moon and Mars.

Headquartered in Kent, Wash., Blue Origin will be awarded $10 million to conduct a ground-based demonstration of hydrogen and oxygen liquefaction and storage.

“The demonstration could help inform a large-scale propellant production plant suitable for the lunar surface,” NASA said today in a news release.

Such a technology meshes with a scenario in which lunar water ice is mined on the moon, and then converted through electrolysis into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas in accordance with the formula 2H2O → 2H2 + O2. The gas that’s produced would have to be cryogenically chilled into liquid form for storage and use as sources of energy.

Blue Origin’s proposed Blue Moon lunar lander could use the hydrogen and oxygen not only for its BE-7 rocket engine, but also for electricity-producing fuel cells. Fuel cells could also provide power for habitats and rovers on the moon.

Thirteen other companies will be receiving smaller payouts in accordance with NASA’s fourth round of Tipping Point awards, which adds up to a combined value of $43.2 million. During last year’s round, Blue Origin was awarded $10 million for work on cryogenic liquid propulsion

“These promising technologies are at a ‘tipping point’ in their development, meaning NASA’s investment is likely the extra push a company needs to significantly mature a capability,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “These are important technologies necessary for sustained exploration of the moon and Mars. As the agency focuses on landing astronauts on the moon by 2024 with the Artemis program, we continue to prepare for the next phase of lunar exploration that feeds forward to Mars.”

NASA will make milestone payments to the companies over a performance period of up to 36 months, under the terms of firm fixed-price contracts. Each industry partner is required to devote some of their own money to the project, following a percentage formula that’s based on the company’s size.

Here are the other Tipping Point awards, organized by theme:

Cryogenic propellant production and management

  • OxEon Energy LLC of North Salt Lake, Utah, $1.8 million: OxEon Energy will work with the Colorado School of Mines to integrate an electrolysis technology to process ice and separate the hydrogen and oxygen.
  • Skyre Inc. of East Hartford, Conn., $2.6 million: Skyre, also known as Sustainable Innovations, along with partner Meta Vista USA LLC, will develop a system to make propellant from permanently frozen water located at the moon’s poles, including processes to separate the hydrogen and oxygen, keep the product cold and use hydrogen as a refrigerant to liquefy oxygen.
  • SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., $3 million: SpaceX will collaborate with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to develop and test coupler prototypes – or nozzles – for refueling spacecraft such as the company’s Starship vehicle.

Sustainable energy generation, storage and distribution

  • Infinity Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Inc. of Windsor, Conn., $4 million: The company will collaborate with NASA’s Johnson Space Center to develop a scalable, modular and flexible power and energy product that utilizes new manufacturing methods to reduce cost and improve reliability. The technology could be used for lunar rovers, surface equipment and habitats.
  • Paragon Space Development Corp. of Houston, $2 million: Paragon will work with Johnson and NASA’s Glenn Research Center to develop an environmental control and life support system as well as a thermal control system for lunar missions that maintain acceptable operating temperatures throughout the moon’s day and night cycle.
  • TallannQuest LLC of Sachse, Texas, $2 million: Working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the company, also known as Apogee Semiconductor, will develop a radiation-hardened switching power controller capable of being configured based on a mission’s power needs. This technology could be used for missions to the moon, Mars, Europa and other destinations.

Efficient and affordable propulsion systems

  • Accion Systems Inc. of Boston, $3.9 million: The first interplanetary CubeSats, NASA’s MarCO-A and B, used a set of cold gas thrusters for attitude control and course corrections during their cruise to Mars, alongside the Mars InSight lander. Accion and JPL will partner to mature a propulsion system to demonstrate the same capabilities as those required for the MarCO mission, but with a smaller and lighter system that uses less power.
  • CU Aerospace LLC of Champaign, Illinois, $1.7 million: CU Aerospace, NearSpace Launch and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will build and test a 6-unit CubeSat equipped with two different propulsion systems. These systems were developed with NASA Small Business Innovation Research  funding and offer high performance, low cost and safe pre-launch processing. The company plans to deliver the flight-ready CubeSat to NanoRacks for launch and deployment.
  • ExoTerra Resource LLC of Littleton, Colorado, $2 million: ExoTerra will build, test and launch a 12-unit CubeSat with a compact, high impulse solar electric propulsion module. Once flight-ready, the system will be demonstrated in-space as the CubeSat moves from low Earth orbit to the radiation belts surrounding Earth. This small electric propulsion system could open up the inner solar system for targeted science exploration missions.

Autonomous operations

  • Blue Canyon Technologies Inc. of Boulder, Colo., $4.9 million: As access to space increases, so does the need for ground resources, such as tracking stations. With an in-space demonstration, Blue Canyon will mature an autonomous navigation software solution for small satellites so they can traverse space without having to “talk” to Earth.

Rover mobility

  • Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, $2 million: Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon University will work with JPL and Kennedy Space Center to develop small rover “scouts” that can host payloads and interface with multiple large landers. This project received previous NASA funding through SBIR awards.

Advanced avionics

  • Intuitive Machines LLC of Houston, $1.3 million: Development of a spacecraft vision processing computer and software to reduce the cost and schedule required for deploying optical or laser navigation capabilities on government and commercial missions.
  • Luna Innovations of Blacksburg, Virginia, $2 million: Luna Innovations is partnering with Sierra Nevada Corp., ILC Dover and Johnson to prove the viability of sensors that monitor the structural health and safety of expandable space habitats located in orbit or on the surface of other worlds.

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