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CubeSat deployment
Foot-long nanosatellites tumble through space after their deployment from the International Space Station. Kymeta is working on flat-panel communication antennas that could be placed on such satellites. (NASA Photo)

Flat-panel antennas that are tiny enough to fit on a nanosatellite and a 3-D printer that can recycle space station trash are among the Seattle-area projects that have won seed money in NASA’s latest round of grant-making.

They’re just a couple of the 133 proposals selected for contracts of up to $750,000 under NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, or SBIR. But what’s notable about Kymeta’s mini-antennas and Tethers Unlimited Inc.’s ERASMUS plastics recycler and 3-D printer is that they could spawn products for use on Earth as well as in space.

Take ERASMUS, for example: The device under development Bothell-based Tethers Unlimited is designed to melt down and sterilize plastic waste and parts, turn the stuff into printer filament, and use it in a 3-D printer to create food utensils, medical devices and other gadgets.

That capability would clearly come in handy on the International Space Station or inside a habitat on the moon or Mars. But Tethers Unlimited says there are also potential terrestrial applications.

“TUI expects that the ability to create food-contact-safe sterilized materials will be ideal for the DoD [Department of Defense] to support soldiers in remote locations where resupply is limited,” the company says in its description of the project. “We also anticipate this technology to be a game-changer for medical service providers with limited access to water.”

Redmond-based Kymeta, meanwhile, plans to use its NASA grant to develop low-power, flat-panel, electronically steerable Ka-band antennas that would fit on a type of satellite known as a 3U CubeSat. Such satellites measure just 4 by 4 by 10 inches, and they’re becoming increasingly popular for space applications.

“This antenna is appropriate for a variety of applications that require high data rate communications but do not have the funding or the weight budget to allow a phased array antenna, including university CubeSat teams, commercial companies, and government entities,” Kymeta says.

Kymeta also happens to be working on satellite antennas small enough to fit on automobiles, which could be used for video as well as the data stream that’d be required for self-driving systems. It’s easy to imagine the synergy between what Kymeta is doing for space applications, and what it’s planning for connected cars.

NASA’s SBIR grants, like its Small Business Technology Transfer grants, are aimed at giving small businesses a boost when it comes to developing technologies suitable for space applications. The latest grants, announced last week, are 24-month Phase II SBIR contracts. They follow up on Phase I contracts that fund technology development to the tune of no more than $125,000 over the course of a year.

In addition to Kymeta’s antennas and Tethers Unlimited’s 3-D printer/recycler, the latest batch of Phase II SBIR awards include these projects being developed in Washington state and Oregon:

  • e-beam, Beaverton, Ore: A miniaturized amplifier that can process remote-sensing data on CubeSats.
  • The Innovation Laboratory, Portland, Ore.: An air traffic management system that can transition between operations over oceans and operations over land.
  • Luxel Corp., Friday Harbor, Wash.: Ultra-thin graphene foils for use in sensors that would weigh less and consume less power than current instruments.
  • M42 Technologies, Seattle: Scaled-down navigation equipment that would enable small satellites to fly in formation.
  • Sequoia Scientific, Bellevue, Wash.: Instruments that could be used to measure hyperspectral backscattering in oceans. Such measurements could help scientists assess the health of marine ecosystems more accurately.
  • Tethers Unlimited, Bothell, Wash.: In addition to ERASMUS, Tethers Unlimited won awards for its OpenSWIFT communication platform and its MANTIS telerobotic interface system.
  • Voxtel, Beaverton, Ore: An advanced entry, descent and landing system that’d be suitable for a spacecraft landing on Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter.

Stay tuned for NASA’s announcement of the next batch of Phase I SBIR and STTR awards in April.

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