Tethers Unlimited wins five NASA awards to develop new types of space gizmos

Alan Boyle
Tethers Unlimited’s Androgynous Robotic Tool-change Interface, or ARTIE, is a hot-swappable tool-change interface for the Kraken robotic arm. (Tethers Unlimited Illustration)

NASA today awarded up to $45.4 million for 363 aerospace projects proposed by small businesses and research institutions — including Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited, which snagged five of the awards.

Phase I grants of up to $125,000 each will go to the latest crop of winners in NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, also known as SBIR and STTR.

Tethers Unlimited traditionally does well in the SBIR/STTR competition. In the past, the company has won NASA’s backing for research into technologies ranging from in-space construction to 3-D printing and plastic recycling in zero gravity.

Here are the five Tethers Unlimited projects supported in the latest round:

  • SPIDER: The system known as Sensing and Positioning in Deep Environments With Retrieval, or SPIDER, is akin to the tethered “skycams” that are used in sports arenas. The system can perform landing, mobility and sampling operations while suspended over a lunar crater. Tethers Unlimited says SPIDER avoids the contamination and stability problems that lunar rovers would face during crater exploration. Phase I involves concept development and design, with prototyping and testing of the system planned for Phase II. (SBIR)
  • ARTIE: The Androgynous Robotic Tool-change Interface, or ARTIE, would serve as a miniaturized power and data grapple interface for use on robotic assets such as Tethers Unlimited’s Kraken robotic arm or NASA’s Astrobee robotic helpmate. A proof-of-concept mechanism would be built and demonstrated for Phase I, and ARTIE could be tested as an Astrobee payload in Phase II. Eventually, the tool-change interface could be used on the International Space Station and NASA’s moon-orbiting Gateway platform. (SBIR)
  • VORTEX: The Venus or Titan Exploration gimbal would be a pointing mechanism capable of supporting future NASA aerobot exploration missions to Venus and the Saturnian moon Titan, as well as satellite operations in extreme environments. Tethers Unlimited will use the Phase I award to fund further progress on the design for the high-precision robotic “wrist.” (SBIR)
  • HyperBus: The HyperBus Cargo Platform would serve as a palletizing system to support the transport, emplacement and exchange of hardware at the International Space Station and other orbital platforms. Assuming that the concept moves on to Phase II, Tethers Unlimited would develop a concept design, fabricate a prototype and demonstrate the system in its lab. (SBIR)
  • RAMP TPS: Tethers Unlimited’s grant for the Resin Additive Manufacturing Processed Thermal Protection System, or RAMP TPS, will go toward developing an in-situ cured, additively manufactured, spacecraft heatshield material and process.  RAMP TPS will enable low-cost production of heat shields for re-entry vehicles.  Tethers Unlimited will be collaborating with researchers at Western Washington University to develop this technology. (STTR)
This diagram shows how Tethers Unlimited’s SPIDER system could be deployed as a platform for exploring craters, skylights and other challenging terrain on the moon and Mars. SPIDER uses launchable tethered anchors and onboard winches to perform landing, mobility, and sampling operations while suspended over the crater, much like the skycams used in sports arenas. (Tethers Unlimited Illustration)
The VORTEX gimbal system makes it possible for balloon-based exploration platforms floating above Venus or Titan to communicate with Earth even if winds cause them to rotate rapidly, and it will enable landers on the moon and Mars to track and communicate with relay satellites in orbit. The gimbal uses the “Canfield Joint” design for precise, rapid pointing over a full hemisphere, and its carpal-wrist design lets it rotate continually without twisting up antenna feed lines. (Tethers Unlimited Illustration)

Two other Washington state companies won Phase I SBIR awards:

  • Optinav of Bellevue will develop a new technique that uses microphone phased arrays to identify sources of noise and measure turbulence during wind tunnel testing. The company says the technology would enhance NASA’s ability to assess the aerodynamics of air-mobility vehicles.
  • Rocket Propulsion Systems of Renton will work on a new type of injector for rocket engines that use liquid oxygen and a high-velocity spray of liquid hydrogen. The technology could also be used for ground testing of nuclear thermal propulsion systems and ramjet/scramjet propulsion. Phase I will focus on demonstrating technical feasibility and building two subscale prototypes.

Companies in 40 other states won SBIR and STTR grants for gizmos ranging from intelligent rover wheels to roll-up solar panels to a hyperspectral microscope that could be used to search for life on other planets.

“We are excited about the entrepreneurial, innovative ideas that these small businesses are bringing to the table,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a news release. “The technologies show great promise in helping NASA achieve its objectives across all mission areas, including our efforts to send American astronauts to the moon, and then on to Mars, while also providing a long-term boost to the American economy.”

NASA and the selected companies will negotiate the precise amounts of the awards, up to the Phase I maximum of $125,000. SBIR contracts last for six months, while STTR contracts last for 13 months. If the Phase I projects are successful, companies may become eligible for 24-month Phase II contracts of up to $750,000.

NASA’s most recent SBIR Phase II selections were announced last month. Tethers Unlimited won a Phase II award for its AstroPorter multi-robot collaboration system. Washington state’s other Phase II award recipients were Magnin Technologies in Redmond and Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. in Seattle.

This report was updated at 8 p.m. PT to include a fifth award for Tethers Unlimited (the one for the heat shield made through additive manufacturing).

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