Nasa has released 56 formerly-patented technologies relating to a range of space and aerospace uses into the public domain to try to help encourage young entrepreneurs to commercialise the technologies in space ventures. The hope is that this kick-start will help to grow and expand innovation in the global space industry.
The patents released include advanced manufacturing processes, sensors, propulsion methods, rocket nozzles, thrusters, methods for controlling airflow around vehicles in hypersonic flight, aircraft wing designs and improved rocket safety and performance concepts. They are all now available on Nasa's public-domain database, together with 1,000 other government-developed technologies.
"By making these technologies available in the public domain, we are helping foster a new era of entrepreneurship that will again place America at the forefront of high-tech manufacturing and economic competitiveness," said Daniel Lockney, Nasa's Technology Transfer program executive.
"By releasing this collection into the public domain, we are encouraging entrepreneurs to explore new ways to commercialise Nasa technologies."
Of course, the patents will be of most use and interest to private space companies, like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, as the patents relate to inventions including rocket nozzles, injection systems and propellants that could help to launch a new generation of commercial spacecraft, as well as technologies for mitigating dangerous gases created as humans live and work in space.
Helping to revitalise the international space industry
However, the potential of the released patents is huge as Nasa shut its space shuttle programme down in 2011 after completing construction of the International Space Station due to the high costs of space launches. Indeed every year, the space agency continues to see cuts to the funds it is given by the federal government.
It is still very expensive to launch and ship cargo into space − just to launch 1kg of cargo into low Earth orbit costs $10,000 (£7,000), and to launch it to the Moon, it would cost $100,000. At the moment, the amount of stuff that would need to be shipped to Mars means it is presently impossible for Nasa to be able to realistically colonise the Red Planet.
Due to these problems, there is currently no direct American access to the ISS and Nasa has to pay $70m (£48.3m) per seat for US astronauts to ride on Russia's Soyuz space capsules. This really isn't ideal, so Nasa has been giving SpaceX and Boeing billions in seed money to help private industry revitalise the US space industry.
While these patents could help with that, they also pave the way for smaller start-ups all over the world to commercialise Nasa technologies and help work towards the holy grail of space exploration – being able to launch satellites and people into space cheaply and quickly.
"I'd like to see the next generation come through − instead of just establishing a new set of giants, I'd like to see more and more companies get into this area. It's not SpaceX, Boeing, and Blue Origin that I'm excited about — it's the yet unnamed companies," Lockney told scientific culture magazine Inverse.
"I'm picturing new companies, young aerospace engineers in a college realising for that the first time in the history of humanity that this commercial space endeavour is open to more and more people, it's not strictly the work of government... or aerospace contractors."