SHOOT FOR THE MOON

This Texas company is on a mission to the moon with $93 million NASA contract

NASA has tapped Firefly Aerospace, headquartered in Texas, to land science equipment on the moon. Courtesy of Firefly Aerospace.

A local aerospace company is over the moon about its latest endeavor: a NASA-funded project to deliver scientific payloads to the lunar surface.

NASA recently awarded rocket-maker Firefly Aerospace $93.3 million to deliver a suite of science and technology demonstrations and equipment to the moon in 2023. The award is part of a NASA initiative — and key to its moon-focused Artemis program — that enables the agency to tap commercial partners to quickly dispatch and land science and technology payloads on the moon.

As part of the deal, Firefly is responsible for what NASA calls "end-to-end delivery services," meaning the company will compile the NASA-sponsored and commercial payloads, weighing more than 200 pounds, launch them from Earth, land them on the moon using its Blue Ghost lander, which was designed and developed at Firefly's Cedar Park facility, and manage mission operations.

"Our team's collective experience resulted in a creative technical solution to meet the needs of all these payloads, with a strong emphasis on both lunar science return and customer service through each mission phase," says Will Coogan, Firefly's lunar lander chief engineer.

For Firefly, the mission supports the company's overall goal to become the leading space-transportation company in the U.S. The NASA award was publicized the same day Firefly announced a new board of directors and its plans to implement an internal restructuring of the company, namely designating specific business units dedicated to launchers and spacecraft, and expanding its government-relations team.

This is the first NASA award of its kind for Firefly, which is scheduled to deliver the goods to the moon's low-lying Crisium basin, enabling NASA to further investigate the lunar surface, all with the goal of preparing for future human missions to — and sustainable human presence on — the moon.

"The payloads we're sending as part of this delivery service span across multiple areas, from investigating the lunar soil and testing a sample capture technology, to giving us information about the moon's thermal properties and magnetic field," says Chris Culbert, manager of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Firefly's Blue Ghost will land in an area of the Crisium basin known as Mare Crisium, a 300-mile-wide valley where NASA hopes to gain more understanding about the loose rock and soil, as well as the interaction of solar wind and Earth's magnetic field.

The lunar investigations will come shortly before NASA's planned missions to the moon and beyond. As part of its Artemis program, NASA aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, with the agency noting its partnerships with commercial companies like Firefly will help NASA "establish sustainable exploration by the end of the decade," then use that knowledge to "take the next giant leap: sending astronauts to Mars."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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