NASA is Granted a Patent for Identifying a Faster & Cheaper Moon Route — Has a New ‘Space Race’ Begun?

The US-Soviet ‘space race’ of the 1960s is back with a twist. This time the competition is primarily between research institutions and technology businesses, as well as nations.

It involves cost-efficient, long term research, which some believe can lead to Nobel Prize-level scientific discoveries.

At stake is robotic research capable of recording for the first time low-frequency radio waves emitted during the earliest epochs of the universe — when atoms, stars, black holes, and galaxies were just beginning to form. This can also lead to new compounds.

NASA has been granted a patent on an innovative trajectory that is said to allow an unmanned spacecraft to effectively hitch a ride with communication satellites in order to reach high-Earth orbit before using the Earth’s and the moon’s gravity to perform a ‘slingshot maneuver’ to the Moon.

“This trajectory to the moon arose out of necessity, as these things often do,” Jack Burns, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado Boulder and leader of the Dapper mission, told Business Insider. “We needed to keep the launch costs low and find a cheap way to get to the moon.”

The Dapper mission projects cost at a low $150 million, a fraction of the cost of the Apollo missions. The cost of 1969’s Apollo 11 moonshot was reported at $355 million – more than $2.5 billion in today’s dollars.

Numerical Modeling

It may seem odd to patent lunar travel, explains Burns. It is really no different from any other invention. “It’s a creation that was the result of doing numerical modeling of planetary trajectories, he said. “So it is intellectual property.”

Whether current case law and the courts agree with Burns’ assessment of what can be covered in a patent is another matter. A trajectory is likely algorithmic in nature, a calculation derived from data gathered by NASA and analyzed by its experts. Under Alice most software is unpatentable. It is not clear how this trajectory is different.

While the new method, will not be as fast as the Apollo 11 mission, which reached the Moon in only a few days, it will be faster than equivalent smaller missions that use much less rocket fuel. NASA estimates that the trip to the Moon will take about two and a half months, while similar-sized missions typically take up to six months.

With so much at stake, it will be interesting to see if Chinese technology businesses, known to be interested building a leading aerospace industry, will recognize NASA patents and be willing to take a license or agree to cross license.

Rethinking IP

Perhaps NASA’s effort to capture and share its research and experience will lead to revisiting how how software is viewed. In many cases software has inventive elements with are novel and non-obvious, and should be protected under stronger patent law, not only just copyright. If there is enough demand for more efficient space flight, slower and less sexy than the moon-shots of the past but potentially more lucrative in terms of discovery and ROI, it may be necessary to rethink how IP is defined and its role in research and discoveries.

Business Insider reports, the first spacecraft to use the new trajectory will be the Dark Ages Polarimeter Pathfinder (Dapper), a mission developed by the University of Colorado Boulder, which will set out to record from the far side of the Moon, for the first time, low-frequency radio waves that were emitted during the Universe’s early formation.

NASA charges as much as $50,000 to license its patents but typically asks for $5,000 to $10,000, plus royalties. “It is through the upfront fees that NASA seeks to recover some of its investment in the patent filing and maintenance costs,” the agency’s licensing website says.

A History of Licensing

The Agency has a history of patent licensing, and is proud of its achievements in materials and other areas, for which private sector companies their customers have benefitted, reports Steven Brachmann in an excellent IP Watchdog article.

An estimated 30 percent of NASA’s patent portfolio is licensed with sensors, instruments and new materials being among the most popular, says Daniel Lockney, tech transfer executive director for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. About 85 percent of NASA’s patent licenses is with firms that aren’t in the aerospace sector.

‘Method for transferring a spacecraft from geosynchronous transfer orbit to lunar orbit’ was published on and granted on the same date, June 30th, 2020. The issued patent can be found, here

Image source: NASA/businessinsider.com; interestingengineering.com

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