NASA Selects 3 Small Business Projects Focused on ISS Utilization

NASA astronaut and Expedition 47 Flight Engineer Jeff Williams works with the WetLab-2 system aboard the International Space Station.  (Credit: NASA)

NASA has selected three proposals focused on the utilization of the International Space Station (ISS) under its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 program.

NanoSonic wants to demonstrate the production of photovoltaic cells and arrays aboard the station. Made in Space’s proposal is focused on production of glass alloys in microgravity. IRPI wants to demonstrate a system for better handling liquids for life support and other uses.

NASA would use NanoSonic’s automated manufacturing module aboard ISS to demonstrate the production of electronics in space.

“NanoSonic would develop electrospray techniques compatible with the microgravity environment for the direct and complete printing of large-scale perovskite solar cells (PSCs) and arrays,” the proposal summary stated. “Unlike ink jet printing that sprays liquid drops of ink that would spatially wander in microgravity, electrospray methods use high voltage to rapidly accelerate materials onto charged substrates so no release of liquids occurs….

“This would support the development of commercial manufacturing in space and demonstrate the production of electronics away from earth,” the summary added. “NASA could use high efficiency solar cells produced onboard ISS in future missions that require increased electrical power, including fixed space platforms such as the Deep Space Gateway or outposts on the surfaces of the moon or Mars.”

Made in Space says that specialty glass manufacturing is the next step in the industrialization of low Earth orbit.

“The Glass Alloy Manufacturing Machine (GAMMA) is an experimental system designed to investigate how these materials form without the effects of gravity-induced flows and inform process improvements for commercial product development,” the proposal summary states.

“While focused around creating fluoride glass preforms, the system can also be used to melt a host of glass compositions, experiment with different dopants, and start the process of creating larger and higher quality glasses aboard the ISS,” the document added. “The initial system development focuses on remelting glass materials originally created on the ground and quantifying differences with ground control experiments.”

Glass alloys have a wide variety of uses on Earth and in space, including in sensors, imaging, telecommunications, networking, information systems and lasers.

IRPI’s project aims to improve the reliability of life support systems and reduce the time astronauts have to use to repair them as NASA sends astronauts to the moon and Mars.

“To prepare for the future during the ISS era, we propose to develop and deliver a simple, yet profound, two-phase flow testbed for use on ISS,” the proposal stated. “The facility will be deployed for the exhaustive measurement, demonstration, and qualification of inertia-visco-capillary two-phase flows—flows critical to myriad low-g fluids conduits, devices, and systems (fuels, coolants, and water processing equipment for life support).”

Summaries of the selected proposals follow.


Proposal Title:
ISS Electrospray Production of Photovoltaics

Subtitle Topic:
ISS Utilization and Microgravity Research

Small Business Concern
NanoSonic, Inc.
Pembroke , VA

Principal Investigator
Richard Claus

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

Manufacturing in space has been a long-term goal for the International Space Station (ISS). It is important both as a way to potentially produce high value materials such as some drugs that can be created more efficiently in the microgravity environment as well as a way to demonstrate that Lunar and Martian outposts can manufacture some of their own needed supplies on-site. Multiple prior experiments have been developed to demonstrate the manufacturing of specialized materials onboard ISS, including infrared ZBLAN optical fiber that avoids internal crystallization effects in microgravity, and parts produced through 3D printing.

The objective of this program is to develop an ISS experimental package to demonstrate the onboard production of photovoltaic cells and arrays. NanoSonic would develop electrospray techniques compatible with the microgravity environment for the direct and complete printing of large-scale perovskite solar cells (PSCs) and arrays. Unlike ink jet printing that sprays liquid drops of ink that would spatially wander in microgravity, electrospray methods use high voltage to rapidly accelerate materials onto charged substrates so no release of liquids occurs.

PSCs have been developed rapidly during the past five years to currently exhibit power conversion efficiencies (PCEs) greater than 20%. Electrospray printing of PSCs would allow the rapid, low cost manufacturing of large area and mechanically flexible and stowable solar array fabrics, and their fabrication onboard ISS would demonstrate the production of materials that are needed in space.

Through the Phase I SBIR program, NanoSonic would work through a subcontract with Professor Shashank Priya, a leader in the development of perovskite solar cell technology at Penn State University, and informally with aerospace engineers at a major U.S. aerospace company to consider onboard ISS experimental system requirements.

Potential NASA Applications

NASA would use the developed automated module onboard ISS to demonstrate the manufacturing of electronics in space. This would support the development of commercial manufacturing in space and demonstrate the production of electronics away from earth. NASA could use high efficiency solar cells produced onboard ISS in future missions that require increased electrical power, including fixed space platforms such as the Deep Space Gateway or outposts on the surfaces of the moon or Mars.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Flexible, low cost, highly efficient PSCs would have application in PV fabric-based tents, backpacks and vehicles, as an alternative power source in remote locations along rural highways or recreation areas off the grid, and as a replacement for rigid rooftop and backyard PV structures that provide lower PCEs. Low-cost electrospray additive manufacturing units could be used by industry, researchers and individuals to make their own photovoltaic fabrics and arrays and other electronic devices.


Proposal Title:
Glass Alloy in Microgravity (GAMMA)

Subtopic Title:
ISS Utilization and Microgravity Research

Small Business Concern
Made in Space, Inc.
Jacksonville , FL

Principal Investigator
Jan Clawson

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

MIS is pioneering the use of the microgravity environment on the International Space Station (ISS) for manufacturing and product development. MIS has leveraged NASA SBIR support to create the first polymer additive manufacturing machines in space, develop a hybrid additive-subtractive metal manufacturing technology, and investigate the creation of large single-crystal industrial materials in microgravity.

The next step in the industrialization of LEO is the formulation of base materials, such as specialty glasses, that can be refined into higher value products in microgravity. The Glass Alloy Manufacturing Machine (GAMMA) is an experimental system designed to investigate how these materials form without the effects of gravity-induced flows and inform process improvements for commercial product development.

While focused around creating fluoride glass preforms, the system can also be used to melt a host of glass compositions, experiment with different dopants, and start the process of creating larger and higher quality glasses aboard the ISS. The initial system development focuses on remelting glass materials originally created on the ground and quantifying differences with ground control experiments.

However, MIS plans trade studies to find more complex glass experiments, such as processing the constituent powders into samples, containerless processing, varying gravity levels, and other experiments which can only be performed on the ISS platform.

Potential NASA Applications

Exotic optical fiber can be used in many different applications such as lasers, spectroscopy, high-grade sensors and other items that NASA and the Department of Defense could use. Because of the unique properties when manufacturing fiber in space, specific types of fiber gain tremendous value by lowering the attenuation and reducing microcrystals in the glass yielding a much better product.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Telecommunications, Networking, and Information: Technological companies handling large amounts of data daily would all be interested in having better performance over a wider bandwidth.

Sensors and Imaging: Better coverage in the mid-IR regions for sensors provides new applications for many industries

Lasers: Mid-IR fiber lasers are enabled by the specialty optical fibers investigated here, and are attractive due to high efficiency, excellent beam quality, and broad gain bandwidth


Proposal Title:
Advanced Passive Phase Separations for Space Exploration

Subtitle Topic:
ISS Utilization and Microgravity Research

Small Business Concern
IRPI, LLC
Wilsonville , OR

Principal Investigator
Ryan Jenson

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 6

Technical Abstract

Nearly all fluid systems aboard spacecraft are, or become, multiphase fluid systems, whether by design or default. Unfortunately, we still do not possess ample understanding of low-g fluid phenomena to assure performance and avoid system failure. Though inadequate fluid system design can lead to disastrous consequences, for the most part, and for life support systems in general, precious crew time is consumed by the repair and maintenance of life support equipment.

Long-duration space flight missions to the moon, Mars and other planetary bodies will require hardware that is less prone to failure and significantly more robust than the current state of the art. To prepare for the future during the ISS era, we propose to develop and deliver a simple, yet profound, two-phase flow testbed for use on ISS. The facility will be deployed for the exhaustive measurement, demonstration, and qualification of inertia-visco-capillary two-phase flows—flows critical to myriad low-g fluids conduits, devices, and systems (fuels, coolants, and water processing equipment for life support).

Our approach is uniquely tailored to achieve high data rates of both engineering and scientific value in a safe, fast-to-flight, low-cost experiment constructed substantially of flight qualified COTS components. Our two-phase flow data objectives are expected to be highly complementary to the NASA GRC research and NASA JSC life support applications, focusing on the critical performance impacts of container/conduit geometry and poor wetting conditions common to many fluid systems aboard spacecraft.

Additionally, our ‘low-tech’ approach to experiment design and data collection greatly increases the rate and breadth of microgravity two-phase flow research returns to NASA with concurrent reductions in overall program risk.

Potential NASA Applications

The primary data to be collected is of both short- and long-term interest to NASA as it supports the development of a wide variety of systems including air revitalization, water recovery, water management, habitation, waste water treatment, condensing heat exchangers, and other contaminating systems such as plant and animal habitats, laundering and hygiene, food rehydration and dispensing, and others. Highly wetting systems relevant to coolants, cryogens, and propellants may also be addressed.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Data is expected to have a direct impact on commercial aerospace system design for a wide range of critical systems including life support, thermal management, water management and others. The phase separating devices will be qualified in an operational environment generating discrete flow products and design guides that can be integrated into existing and future systems.

  • Michael Halpern

    Very nice projects