Masten Space Systems Gets NASA Funding for Lunar Research

Astronauts on a future lunar walk. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has selected Mojave’s Masten Space Systems for two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I awards for work focused on helping the space agency return astronauts to the moon. The awards are worth up to $125,000 apiece.

Under one contract, Masten will work with Penn State University on developing metal oxidation warming systems (MOWS) that will allow spacecraft to survive the cold lunar nights. MOWS generate heat by oxidizing metals such as lithium, aluminum, and magnesium.

“These chemical reactions are highly exothermic producing 1700 Wh/kg, an order-of-magnitude increase over Li-ion batteries,” the company said in its proposal summary.

“MOWS provides upcoming lunar missions a high-performance and low-cost solution to the active thermal protection required by spacecraft to operate in harsh lunar conditions where nighttime surface temperatures can approach -175°C and permanently shaded regions (PSRs) approach -230°C,” the proposal added.

Under the other contract, Masten will work on developing reliable, high-fidelity models of the regolith thrown up as landing vehicles touch down on the moon. The models will be crucial for safe operations on the surface.

“Research has shown that deep cratering will occur on Mars for human-class landers and that it might occur on the Moon for the very large landers planned by NASA for human missions from the Lunar Gateway, and for large landers on the soft rims of young craters or in permanently shadowed craters where the data indicate the soil is much less densified than at the Apollo sites,” according to the proposal summary.

The proposal summaries follow.


Surviving the Lunar Night Using Metal Oxidation Warming Systems
Subtopic Title: Thermal Control Systems

Principal Investigator
Matthew Kuhns

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

Metal oxidation warming systems (MOWS) generate heat through the oxidation of various metals, including lithium, aluminum, and magnesium. These chemical reactions are highly exothermic producing 1700 Wh/kg, an order-of-magnitude increase over Li-ion batteries.

MOWS provides upcoming lunar missions a high-performance and low-cost solution to the active thermal protection required by spacecraft to operate in harsh lunar conditions where nighttime surface temperatures can approach -175°C and permanently shaded regions (PSRs) approach -230°C.

Without an appropriate active thermal protection system, technology in these environments will fail or degrade. Development and maturation of MOWS will allow the lunar exploration community to extend missions through the lunar night and increase accessibility to new lunar regions, like permanently shadowed craters, where technology was previously constrained by the harsh operating environment.

Under this Phase I SBIR, Masten Space System and Penn State will demonstrate the technical feasibility of using MOWS to survive the night on a small lunar landers by evaluating and downselecting various MOWS chemistries to inform high efficiency designs.

Once priority reactions are identified, heated enclosures for components and payloads will be designed and developed. A range of thermal conditions will be considered, varying selenographically from the poles to the equator (including PSRs) and chronologically from lunar day to lunar night. Thermal models will be created to advance enclosure designs and better understand components’ thermal requirements.

A breadboard heating system will be designed and manufactured by Penn State. At the conclusion of Phase I, the expected TRL is 3, with analytical proof-of-concept work completed. Parallel work conducted by Penn State and not included in this SBIR will advance the technology to TRL 4 in experiments.

Potential NASA Applications

The proposed innovation supports NASA’s cislunar, Mars, and interplanetary exploration plans by providing a viable alternative to RTGs for deep space missions. MOWS is a scalable alternative to RTGs and removes RTG contamination risks and regulatory compliance requirements for future NASA Discovery, New Frontiers, or Flagship exploration programs. On the Moon, MOWS supports NASA’s vision to maintain a sustainable presence by offering an active thermal solution that promotes persistent activities through the lunar night.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Commercial space providers can leverage MOWS to survive the lunar night and PSRs. Applications of MOWS include mobility platforms, landers, rovers, or stationary infrastructure and robotics (drills, communications hubs, habitats). The national security space community may use MOWS as a thermal application on their own future cislunar architectures that will require a persistent lunar presence.

Duration: 6 months


Testing Deep Cratering Physics to Inform Plume Effects Modeling
Subtopic Title: Lander Systems Technologies

Principal Investigator
Matthew Kuhns

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

There exist crucial gaps in the understanding of engine plume physics that make it impossible to develop reliable, high-fidelity modeling for lunar blast effects. Research has shown that deep cratering will occur on Mars for human-class landers and that it might occur on the Moon for the very large landers planned by NASA for human missions from the Lunar Gateway, and for large landers on the soft rims of young craters or in permanently shadowed craters where the data indicate the soil is much less densified than at the Apollo sites.

It is vital to make progress observing, describing, and understanding the physics of erosion and scouring under a supersonic jet, and deep jet-induced fluidization cratering. The physics of deep cratering are very complex and almost no progress has been made by prior researchers since this is a unique area of physics that occurs only for larger rockets landing on planetary bodies.

Experimental work, proposed in this effort, is needed using actual rocket thrusters and regolith with adequate instrumentation, in addition to laboratory and low gravity experiments. These results will drive plume modeling leading to development of mitigation requirements for landing larger vehicles on the Moon and Mars while protecting the surrounding hardware.

Potential NASA Applications

Accurate modeling of rocket plume effects addresses key knowledge barriers that presently exist in NASA’s Moon-to-Mars exploration strategy. NASA’s technology roadmap calls for increasingly heavy spacecraft to perform lunar surface transportation over the coming decade, as transportation vehicles and their corresponding propulsion systems become larger, adverse effects associated with surface ejecta and cratering will become more severe particularly if extreme ejecta blasts hit the lander or the surrounding lunar region.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of State, National Space Council and NOAA, the FAA, and the Department of Defense (Air Force, Intelligence Community) all are looking to understand how plume impingement from lunar landings may disturb the surface and any US assets or territories located there.

Duration: 6 months