Research and development in labs across the country today could lead to enhanced capabilities in space in the future. NASA has selected eight university-led research proposals to study early-stage technologies relating to advanced materials, quantum communications, and more.

Each selection will receive up to $650,000 in grants from NASA’s Space Technology Research Grants program over up to three years, giving the university teams the time and resources to iterate multiple designs and solutions.

Selected under NASA’s Early Stage Innovation 2021 solicitation, the projects address five topic areas. The principal investigators, universities, and research projects, by topic, are:

Advanced Materials for High-Voltage Power Transmission on the Moon

  • Mehran Tehrani
    The University of Texas at Austin
    Tehrani will design, manufacture, and test the performance of multi-layered copper-graphene conductors for high-voltage power transmission on the Moon. The unique characteristics of both materials could create conductors that are several times more conductive than those only made of copper. Higher electrical conductivity means lighter cables, which are optimal for space missions.

  • Zhiting Tian
    Cornell University in Ithaca, New York
    Current state-of-the-art aerospace cables cannot address the strict requirements for power transmission performance and reliability on the Moon. The objective of Tian’s research is to develop lightweight, multifunctional nanocomposites that can simultaneously act as an insulation and shielding layer for high-voltage lunar cables. The resulting lightweight material could improve thermal conductivity, dielectric strength, and mechanical durability while also providing electromagnetic interference shielding.

Development of Quantum Communications Technologies

  • Brian Smith
    The University of Oregon in Eugene
    Quantum communications systems offer significantly improved speed and security compared to conventional technology. Smith will take a systems approach to the challenges of building an effective space-to-ground quantum communications system. He will use a novel coherent temporal-mode filter called the “quantum pulse gate” to reduce the detected background noise in the system to the theoretical minimum and increase the data rate.

Cognitive Networking Advancements for Lunar Communications and Navigation

  • Joshua Smith
    The University of Washington in Seattle
    Upcoming Moon missions could benefit from the dynamic routing of data from the lunar surface through relays and back to Earth. Smith’s project will develop machine learning-based communications network control algorithms. These could enhance robots’ and humans’ surface communications and navigation capabilities on the Moon for local and Moon-to-Earth communications. The network design will focus on scalability, mobility, and interoperability.

  • Marino Lent  
    The University of Houston 
    In the future, communicating to and from the Moon will require integrating numerous, varied assets belonging to different governments and commercial providers. An autonomous, self-aware network could adapt rapidly to node availability, capability, and more. Lent’s work will explore the integration of advanced artificial intelligence methods with space disruption-tolerant networking protocols to address the complexities of that future state.

Supersonic Retropropulsion Wind Tunnel Data Analysis

  • Matthias Ihme
    Stanford University in Stanford, California
    Supersonic retropropulsion is the firing of rocket engines to decelerate a spacecraft while entering an atmosphere at supersonic speeds. The technology could benefit landing systems for human missions to Mars, but the lack of understanding of the complex physics involved poses significant design challenges. Ihme’s research aims to develop and apply advanced data-analysis methods to extract fundamental plume physics and sensitivities of supersonic retropropulsion.

Advanced Heat Rejection Technologies for Space-Flight Radiators  

  • Mohamed El-Genk
    The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque
    Nuclear propulsion, another enabling technology for crewed Mars missions, will generate large amounts of heat. Heat rejection technologies for spaceflight radiators that increase radiative performance and reduce mass would complement this propulsion system. 
    El-Genk’s research will develop a lightweight, advanced low-mass radiator concept.  

  • Alexander Rattner
    Pennsylvania State University in University Park
    Rattner will develop and test high temperature additively manufactured monolithic metal heat pipe radiators. This fabrication method avoids risks and losses associated with coupling joints and enables high performance, novel designs. Open-source optimization tools will guide radiator heat pipe designs that can withstand mechanical loads from spaceflight and the long-term thermal stresses required in nuclear propulsion and power applications. 

Read more about all eight selections

The Space Technology Research Grants program is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which supports and develops transformative space technologies to enable future missions. As NASA embarks on its next era of exploration with the Artemis program, STMD is helping advance technologies, developing new systems, and testing capabilities at the Moon that will be critical for crewed missions to Mars.

For more information about NASA’s Space Technology Research Grants program, visit: