31 May 2022
Collaboration between Physical Sciences, Inc and Georgia Tech is one of several optics projects to gain ‘Phase I’ support.
NASA has revealed which small businesses and research institutions it is supporting with ‘Phase I’ development funding - with more than 20 optics and photonics technologies gaining a boost.
Over 300 different projects will receive a share of the $50 million awarded via the scheme, which is intended to develop technology to help drive the future of space exploration.
Examples include a new coating to improve the efficiency of solar panels, a photonic integrated Raman spectrometer measuring less than a square centimeter, and a wavelength-swept VCSEL sensor that could be embedded into spacecraft for continuous in-flight structural and health monitoring.
Each team is set to receive $150,000 - a 20 per cent rise on previous years - to establish the feasibility of their innovation. The awards are a combination of small business innovation research (SBIR) contracts that last six months, and small business technology transfer (STTR) contracts lasting just over a year that see a small company partner with a research institution.
Photonic integration concepts
Among the STTR recipients working on photonics innovations this year are the Massachusetts firm Physical Sciences, Inc. (PSI), Alabama-based SSS Optical Technologies, and Rochester’s Aktiwave.
In fact PSI was awarded two STTR contracts featuring photonics technologies. One is the photonic integrated Raman spectrometer, for which it will partner with Georgia Tech Research Corporation.
The approach will use a silicon nitride photonics platform to develop a “dual-stage” spectrometer enabling simultaneous high-bandwidth and high-resolution spectroscopy with direct readout, states the project abstract.
“The overall form factor of the spectrometer will be less than a square centimeter while retaining spectral resolution of better than 0.2 nm,” write the collaborators, explaining that the tiny system will also feature an integrated pump rejection filter for Raman spectroscopy, and provide an upgrade path to integrated light sources and detectors.
The technology could end up being used for material characterization in landing vehicles, plume sampling craft, and satellite-based sensors - with specific possibilities including NASA Goddard’s Ocean Worlds Science Exploration and Analogs (OSEAN) mission, and the Mars Exploration Rover.
Applications outside space exploration are also possible, with fluorescence, absorption, and Raman spectroscopy offering ultra-compact chemical sensors capable of detecting biomolecules and hazardous chemicals.
PSI will also work on a project to develop photonic integrated technology intended to increase the bandwidth and timing resolution of single-photon avalanche diodes (SPADs).
Teaming up with researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the project intends to enable an array of SPADs to operate together for space-based quantum networking applications.
“The development of quantum communications and networks are a key technology to enable secure communication, sensor arrays, and quantum computer networks,” states the project brief. “Our proposed technology will allow NASA to increase the bandwidth of both free-space and fiber quantum links.”
Solar sails and photonic lanterns
Other optics-related technologies to gain funding in the SBIR list include Arizona-based Regher Solar’s “Layer of UV CONverting (LUVCON)” coating to increase the efficiency of flexible solar arrays.
The company will work with Alabama-based SSS Optical Technologies and Oakwood University, who are developing the new optical coating for cells to be embedded in solar sails.
“The coating could generate extra electricity and improve the overall PV conversion efficiency, which could advance solar sailing and other power and energy conversion needs for space exploration,” said NASA, adding that the technology might also be able to improve the efficiency of commercial solar panels used on Earth.
Meanwhile Aktiwave is proposing to develop a mid-infrared “photonic lantern” fabricated using femtosecond laser inscription. The approach is aimed at use in a lidar receiver for new Earth science measurements including the detection of carbon monoxide, free-space laser communications, and “astrophotonics” for exoplanet detection.
Commenting on the wider funding effort, NASA’s Gynelle Steele said: “Finding and building a diverse community of entrepreneurs is a central part of our program's outreach, and the efforts to reach them can start even before Phase I.”
Depending on the success of their Phase I efforts, companies may subsequently submit proposals for $850,000 in Phase II funding to develop prototypes, with further opportunities available after that to move concepts to full commercialization.
One example of a project that recently progressed to “Phase III”, gaining $2 million in support, is a solar sail concept based around diffractive optics and metasurfaces.