"Second star to the right, and straight on till morning."
Turning on his warp engines, this was the direction Capt. James T. Kirk gave his helmsman in Star Trek VI (quoting, curiously enough, from another film -- Walt Disney's 1953 version of Peter Pan). It's also the general direction in which NASA is heading with a series of new contract announcements issued just last month.
Ahead Warp 3, Mr. Sulu
Within a wide-ranging announcement covering "public-private partnership" awards to develop space tech in series of fields -- everything from engines to space habitats to tiny satellites -- NASA confirmed in March that it has selected three companies to develop a new deep space engine to power interplanetary travel.
The contestants include privately held Ad Astra Rocket Co. and MSNW LLC, along with the Aerojet Rocketdyne division of space tech stalwart GenCorp (NYSE:AJRD). Working under the aegis of NASA's Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, program, these three companies will offer the agency three separate flavors of cutting-age space engine tech. Generally speaking, none of the three will work on an actual "warp drive," but rather versions of ion propulsion. Respectively:
Ad Astra is developing a Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, or VASIMR, engine dubbed the VX-200-SS. Using a nuclear reactor to heat and ionize propellant that is then emitted through electromagnetic thrusters, the VASIMR engine puts out 200 kW of power and will be able to reach Mars from Earth in just 39 days, according to Ad Astra.
MSNW has three engine technologies in the works: a one-kilowatt electromagnetic "plasmoid thruster," a "fusion driven rocket," and an electrodeless Lorentz force, or ELF, thruster using "rotating magnetic field and pulsed-inductive technologies." The company said the Department of Defense funded development of its ELF thruster, which can use multiple forms of propellant -- including "Martian Air."
Finally, Aerojet Rocketdyne is receiving the biggest of NASA's awards, $18 million, "to complete the development of NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster-Commercial (NEXT-C) Gridded Ion Thruster System." AR said its NEXT-C engine is already three times as powerful as "current low-power NASA systems," although not yet operating in the targeted 50-to-300 kW range. NASA has asked AR to deliver two complete flight systems for testing.
According to NASA, each company's research will be funded in the amount of "$400,000 to $3.5 million per year per award," and they will conduct development work and ground tests for no more than three years.
What it means to investors
Fascinating as all this new "space tech" might be, the prospects for near-term, large-scale revenue streams arising from the new NASA space-engine project seem remote. This is much more of an early stage research and development project, albeit one that could eventually generate orders from NASA.
Of more interest to investors, as opposed to space enthusiasts, could be the other contracts awarded under NextSTEP:
Seven contracts, worth $400,000 to $1 million apiece, were awarded to companies including Boeing (NYSE:BA), United Technologies (NYSE:UTX), Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), and Orbital ATK (NYSE:OA) to develop new "habitation systems" for use on the International Space Station, on Mars, and on manned spacecraft sent on "extended missions in deep space."
Even more interesting were a pair of $1.4 million to $7.9 million awards, one of which went to Lockheed, to develop new CubeSat. A type of nanosatellite measuring four inches cubed, and weighing just three pounds, designed to perform basic "research" experiments in "science, exploration, technology development, education or operations," these CubeSats could be ready for deployment as soon as the upcoming first launch of the Space Launch System, slated for 2018. As such, this is the contract with the greatest potential to transition from R&D into actual commercial production in a short time frame.
So even if CubeSats aren't as "sexy" a concept as a warp drive engine, or even an ion drive, of the 12 contracts NASA has awarded under NextSTEP this is the single contract investors should give their greatest attention.
Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 353 out of more than 75,000 rated members.
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