NASA pays out $51 million to small businesses with big ideas

NASA has announced its latest batch of small business grants, providing more than 300 businesses a total of $51 million in crucial early-stage funding. These “phase I” projects receive up to $125,000 to help bring new technologies to market.

The Small Business Innovation Research/Technology Transfer programs help entrepreneurs and inventors transition their work from lab to commercial availability. The money is like a grant, not an investment, and Phase I recipients are eligible for larger Phase II grants if they’re warranted.

This year’s selections, as always, cover dozens of disciplines and apply to a wide range of industries. Among NASA’s own highlights in a news release are high-power solar arrays, a smart air traffic control system for urban flight, a water purification system for use on the moon and improved lithium-ion batteries.

There’s even one award for a company making “a compact sterilizer for use on spacecraft materials” that could also be employed by health workers.

Perusing the lists I was struck by the number of neuromorphic computing efforts, from radiation-hardened chips to software techniques. I take these to be chips and approaches that utilize and accelerate machine learning methods, rather than attempts at computers that truly employ the spikes and plasticity of actual neuronal networks.

The 2020 Phase II announcements won’t come for a while — NASA just released 2019’s last month.

The SBIR program is one of the federal government’s inadvertently best-kept secrets, with billions allocated to a dozen agencies to distribute to small businesses. You can learn more at SBIR.gov.

NASA’s JPL open-sources an anti-face touching wearable to help reduce the spread of COVID-19

There are some wearables out there in the world that are making claims around COVID-19 and their ability to detect it, prevent it, certify that you don’t have it, and more. But a new wearable device from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory might actually be able to do the most to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – and it’s not really all that technically advanced or complicated.

JPL’s PULSE wearable uses 3D-printed parts and readily available, affordable electronic components to do just one thing: remind a person not to touch their face. JPL’s designers claim that its simple enough that the gadget “can easily be reproduced by anyone regardless of their level of expertise,” and to encourage more people and companies to actually do that, the lab has made available a full list of parts, 3D modelling files and full instructions for its assembly via an open source license.

The PULSE is essentially a pendant, worn between six inches and 1 foot from the head around the neck, which can detect when a person’s hand is approaching their face using gan IR-based proximity sensor. A vibration motor then shakes out an alert, and the response becomes stronger as your hand gets closer to your face.

The hardware itself is simple – but that’s the point. It’s designed to run on readily available 3V coin batteries, and if you have a 3D printer to hand for the case and access to Amazon, you can probably put one together yourself at home in no time.

The goal of PULSE obviously isn’t to single-handedly eliminate COVID-19 – contact transmission from contaminated hands to a person’s mouth, nose or eyes is just one vector, and it seems likely that respiratory droplets that result in airborne transmission is at least as effective at passing’s the virus around. But just like regular mask-wearing can dramatically reduce transmission risk, minimizing how often you touch your face can have a big combinatory effect with other measures taken to reduce the spread.

Other health wearables might actually be able to tell you when you have COVID-19 before you show significant symptoms or have a positive test result – but work still needs to be done to understand how well that works, and how it could be used to limit exposure. JPL’s Pulse has the advantage of being effective now in terms of building positive habits that we know will limit the spread of COVID-19, as well as other viral infections.

NASA seeks crowdsourced help designing a better Moon toilet

NASA is getting ready for its Artemis program, which seeks to return Americans to the Moon and help establish a permanent presence for humans on the lunar surface, with a new crowdsourcing competition launched in partnership with HeroX, seeking designs for a better way for astronauts to pee and poo on the Moon. Specifically, the competition seeks “innovative designs for fully capable, low mass toilets that can be used both in space and on the Moon.”

The challenge is open to anyone in the “global community of innovators,” and will span eight weeks, with up to $35,000 in prizes available to the competitors winners. Surprisingly, this isn’t actually the first time that NASA has enlisted the power of the crowd, and HeroX’s crowdsourcing platform, to come up with innovative technology around human waste management: its Space Poop challenge from 2016 garnered a lot of attention and awarded a total of $30,000 to three winners.

That competition focused on designing a system specifically for use by fully space-suited astronauts, which is quite different from the toilet designs sought for this challenge, which will be able to be used by astronauts when they’re out of their big, bulky EVA suits during the trip to the Moon within the Artemis landers that astronauts will be using to return to the lunar surface. NASA notes that while the agency already has microgravity toilets that work perfectly well in use on the International Space Station, the low gravity conditions of the Moon will require different designs, and also the nature of the trip to the Moon mean that they’ll be looking for smaller, more power efficient designs – since when you’re launching a self-contained spaceship, every ounce and every watt of power used matters a great deal.

NASA isn’t fully relying on the crowd to come up with unique and innovative space toilet designs, of course. It’s already working on miniaturization of existing versions in-house. But the agency wants to open this up to outside academics, researchers, designers and engineers because they’re hoping that fresh perspective from outside the aerospace industry can help them see potential solutions that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred to people used to working in the field.

NASA to establish a system for flying astronauts and researchers on suborbital commercial spacecraft

NASA is going to chart a path for its astronauts and other personnel to take part in future commercial suborbital spaceflight missions, letting the agency conduct experiments and do research aboard suborbital human spacecraft – including, potentially, vehicles like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. The agency isn’t naming any individual providers yet, however, since the announcement of this program is also accompanied by an official Request for Information (RFI) seeking industry input to pave the way for a fully sketched out plan, including contracting with suppliers.

This is a big development because it’s a significant change from the way NASA has flown its personnel to space to date. Suborbital missions haven’t really been a thing for NASA astronauts since the very early days of the American human spaceflight program, including the X-15 research system and Mercury, the spaceflight program which paved the way for the Apollo missions.

NASA has shifted considerably its approach to public-private partnerships when it comes to space, however, including the development, and now early real-world demonstration success of the Commercial Crew Program, which taps private partners SpaceX and Boeing to fly NASA astronauts to orbital space – and the International Space Station in particular.

In a release announcing the news, NASA notes that the private space industry has reached a point where it’s about to begin offering suborbital spaceflights as a service – something Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin appear closest to achieving – and that “NASA wants to be a buyer.”

“Suborbital human spaceflight has the potential to provide NASA a great way to meet the agency’s needs and continue our efforts to enable a robust economy in space,” said Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters in the release. “It is notable that no NASA funds were used for the development of suborbital vehicles, but we can participate in the market as a buyer. The U.S. aerospace industry is proving again that it is technically and financially capable of developing safe, reliable, and cost-effective space systems.”

NASA believes that making use of suborbital spacecraft operated by commercial partners will give them cost-effective ways to conduct research, as well as test and qualify hardware designed for use in microgravity environments, including on the ISS, without having to book that into an actual ISS mission. It’ll assist with crew training, and provide opportunities for researchers and investigators to conduct their work in microgravity without necessarily requiring the same degree of astronaut training as orbital, long-duration missions.

NASA taps Kathy Leuders to lead its human spaceflight efforts

NASA has selected a new top official to oversee all of its efforts regarding human spaceflight – Kathy Leuders, who previously led NASA’s commercial crew program, starting in 2014 and culminating in the successful first crewed demonstration launch of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft last month.

Leuders also previously worked on NASA’S Commercial Cargo program, which has led to the long and successful relationship between SpaceX and the agency to fly regular cargo supply missions using Dragon and SpaceX’s Falcon 9. In her new role, she’s oversee not just Commercial Crew, which includes both SpaceX and Boeing’s crewed flights, but also Artemis, the ambitious NASA program designed to bring the first American woman and the next American man to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

Officially, Leuders will now Associate Administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate. The office was previously held by Doug Loverro, who resigned in May just ahead of the historic Demo-2 crewed launch, which it was later revealed was as a result of some kind of behavior during the contract award for the agency’s crew lunar lander program that was against its fairness rules.

The HEO is in good hands now with Leuders at the helm, however, given how much she’s accomplished during her tenure at NASA, and her excellent history of working in partnership with the agency’s private sector partners, including SpaceX and Boeing.

You can help a Mars Rover’s AI learn to tell rocks from dirt

Mars Rover Curiosity has been on the Red Planet for going on eight years, but its journey is nowhere near finished — and it’s still getting upgrades. You can help it out by spending a few minutes labeling raw data to feed to its terrain-scanning AI.

Curiosity doesn’t navigate on its own; there’s a whole team of people on Earth who analyze the imagery coming back from Mars and plot a path forward for the mobile science laboratory. In order to do so, however, they need to examine the imagery carefully to understand exactly where rocks, soil, sand and other features are.

This is exactly the type of task that machine learning systems are good at: You give them a lot of images with the salient features on them labeled clearly, and they learn to find similar features in unlabeled images.

The problem is that while there are lots of ready-made data sets of images with faces, cats and cars labeled, there aren’t many of the Martian surface annotated with different terrain types.

“Typically, hundreds of thousands of examples are needed to train a deep learning algorithm. Algorithms for self-driving cars, for example, are trained with numerous images of roads, signs, traffic lights, pedestrians and other vehicles. Other public datasets for deep learning contain people, animals and buildings — but no Martian landscapes,” said NASA/JPL AI researcher Hiro Ono in a news release.

So NASA is making one, and you can help.

Image Credits: NASA / JPL

To be precise, they already have an algorithm, called Soil Property and Object Classification, or SPOC, but are asking for assistance in improving it.

The agency has uploaded to Zooniverse thousands of images from Mars, and anyone can take a few minutes to annotate them — after reading through the tutorial, of course. It may not sound that difficult to draw shapes around rocks, sandy stretches and so on, but you may, as I did, immediately run into trouble. Is that a “big rock” or “bedrock”? Is it more than 50 centimeters wide? How tall is it?

So far the project has labeled about half of the nearly 9,000 images it wants to get done (with more perhaps to come), and you can help them along to that goal if you have a few minutes to spare — no commitment required. The site is available in English now, with Spanish, Hindi, Japanese and other translations on the way.

Improvements to the AI might let the rover tell not just where it can drive, but the likelihood of losing traction and other factors that could influence individual wheel placement. It also makes things easier for the team planning Curiosity’s movements, since if they’re confident in SPOC’s classifications they don’t have to spend as much time poring over the imagery to double check them.

Keep an eye on Curiosity’s progress at the mission’s webpage.

SpaceX’s first crewed spacecraft successfully docks with the International Space Station

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon ‘Endeavor’ successfully docked with the International Space Station as planned on Sunday morning, marking another key milestone during this historic Commercial Crew demonstration mission it’s conducting with NASA. On board Crew Dragon were NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, the test pilots selected to be the first ever humans to fly on board SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, and the first people ever to make the trip to orbit aboard a spacecraft built by a private company.

The docking process was handled completely autonomously by Crew Dragon itself, which is designed by SpaceX to operate on autopilot from the moment of launch throughout the course of the entire mission. The spacecraft is able to dock with a newer automated international docking adapter installed on the ISS, unlike the original cargo version of Dragon, which required manual capture by the robotic Canadarm 2 controlled by astronauts on the station. The updated cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon are designed to work with the new automated system.

Hurley and Behnken launched at 3:22 PM EDT (12:22 PM PDT) on Saturday, taking off from Cape Canaveral in Florida as planned. It was the second launch attempt for this mission, after weather caused a delay last Wednesday. This mission is NASA and SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Demo-2, which is the second demonstration mission of the full flight and return of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, one of two vehicles commissioned by NASA from commercial partners to provide transportation serves for astronauts to and from the Space Station.

Crossing this milestone means that essentially the first half of the mission has been completed successfully – so far, SpaceX has demonstrated that the launch process works as designed, as does manual control (the astronauts took over and ran two tests of that system), and automated docking.

Next up, with the spacecraft connected to the ISS, the hatch will open and Hurley and Behnken will cross through to the Space Station, where they’ll be greeted by its three astronauts. Hurley and Behnken will then perform standard ISS crew activities, including conducing experiments and research, during the next several weeks before they climb back into Crew Dragon for the final portion of Demo-2 – the trip back to Earth.

Watch live as SpaceX’s first astronaut-carrying spacecraft docks with the International Space Station

Today at around 10:30 AM EDT (7:30 AM PDT), SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will dock with the International Space Station, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board. The two have been in flight on orbit since launching from Kennedy Space Center in Florida yesterday at 3:22 PM EDT, a historic launch that made SpaceX the first private space company to fly people to orbit.

You can watch the livestream above to see the approach and docking maneuver, as well as the transfer process once the hatch opens and Hurley and Behnken make the short trip over from their spacecraft to the ISS. The astronauts will then serve on board the orbital lab for a shortened tour of duty, but taking part in all the activities a regular ISS rotation astronaut would do, before eventually heading home to Earth back aboard Crew Dragon in a few weeks.

This milestone mission is the first crewed flight for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which will certify SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for regular operational missions carrying astronauts from the agency and its partners to and from the Space Station .

Ahead of the docking, the astronauts will be conducting manual tests of the spacecraft’s control system, their second test after an initial trial yesterday shortly after launch. Crew Dragon is designed to fly and dock entirely on its own, but part of this mission is ensuring that the manual controls work as designed in case astronauts ever need to make use of them in an emergency.

NASA and SpaceX confirm SpaceX’s first ever astronaut launch is a ‘go’

NASA and SpaceX are closer than ever to a moment both have been preparing for since the beginning of the Commercial Crew program in 2010. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft are now set to fly with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken onboard, making a trip to the International Space Station, and both the agency and SpaceX announced today that they have officially passed the final flight readiness review, meaning everything is now a ‘go’ for launch.

According to NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Leuders during a press conference on Monday, everything went well with all pre-launch flight checks thus far, including a full-length static test fire of the Falcon 9’s engines, and a dress rehearsal of all launch preparation including strapping Hurley and Behnken into the rocket.

The only remaining major hurdle for SpaceX and NASA now is the weather, which is currently only looking around 40% favorable for a launch attempt on schedule for Wednesday, May 27 at 4:33 PM EDT, though during today’s press conference officials noted it is actually trending upwards as of today.

SpaceX and NASA will be paying close attention to the weather between now and Wednesday, and since this is a highly sensitive mission with actual astronauts on board the spacecraft, you can bet that they’ll err on the side of caution for scrubbing the launch if weather isn’t looking good. That said, they do have a backup opportunity of May 30 in case they need to make use of that, as well as another window on May 31.

Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Mission Assurance at SpaceX, noted that there were “no showstoppers” during the static test fire on Friday, and also commented that seeing the actual astronauts climb aboard the Crew Dragon during the dry dress rehearsal really drove home the seriousness and impact of this moment. It will mark the first ever human spaceflight for SpaceX, and the first time astronauts have launched from U.S. soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

Koenigsmann went through the schedule for launch day, which include Behnken and Hurley getting ready and suited up around 4 hours before, be drive over in the custom Tesla Model X astronaut transit vehicle at around 3 hours prior, and get into the capsule at around 2.5 hours before launch time. The rest from there is somewhat similar to other Falcon 9 launches, he said, with the exception of the escape system arming at 45 minutes prior to launch, and the arm retracting 10 minutes later, at which point the automated launch system takes over just like it does for other Falcon 9 flights.

Post-launch, Behnken and Hurley will spend 19 hours on orbit, with orbit-raising burns and also a manual flight test (the rest of the time Crew Dragon should be under fully automated control) for around 30 minutes just prior to docking. Then, it’ll dock and open the hatch around 2 hours later.

The departure schedule for Behnken and Hurley to leave the ISS is in flux – NASA will provide that date, sometime between 6 weeks and 16 weeks from launch. The astronauts will then back into Dragon, suit up, undock from the station, and land in the Atlantic around two hours later for recovery.

This is the culmination of many years’ work, and will be the first human flight for the Commercial Crew program. If all goes well, SpaceX could then begin flying astronauts during regular operational missions for ferrying astronauts to and from the Space Station as early as later this year.

China set to launch Mars probe and rover mission in July

China’s space program will launch a Mars mission in July, according to its current plans. This will include deploying an orbital probe to study the red planet, and a robotic, remotely-controlled rover for surface exploration. The U.S. has also been planning another robotic rover mission for Mars, and it’s set to take off this summer, too – peak time for an optimal transit from Earth to Mars thanks to their relative orbits around the Sun.

This will be the first rover mission to Mars for China’s space program, and is one of the many ways that it’s aiming to better compete with NASA’s space exploration efforts. NASA has flown four previous Mars rover missions, and its fifth, with an updated rover called ‘Perseverance,’ is set to take place this years with a goal of making a rendezvous with Mars sometime in February 2021.

NASA’s mission also includes an ambitious rock sample return plan, which will include the first powered spacecraft launch from the red planet to bring that back. The U.S. space agency is also sending the first atmospheric aerial vehicle to Mars on this mission, a helicopter drone that will be used for short flights to collect additional data from above the planet’s surface.

China has a number of plans to expand its space exploration efforts, including development and launch of an orbital research platform, its own space station above Earth, by 2022. The nation’s space program also recently test-launched a new crew spacecraft, which will eventually be used in its mission to land Chinese astronauts on the surface of the Moon.

Meanwhile, NASA has issued a new set of draft rules that it is proposing for continued international cooperation in space, particularly as they related to reaching the Moon and setting up a more permanent human presence on Earth’s natural satellite. The agency is also hoping to return human space launch capabilities to the U.S. this week with a first demonstration launch of astronauts aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft on Wednesday.