NASA is developing a spaceplane capable of exploring deep space and returning the data it finds, but it has been struggling to put that information to work.
The spaceplane, which is being developed by the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is designed to carry payloads as small as two to eight pounds and to travel at nearly the speed of sound.
It will be capable of returning data and images from the Earth and moon, as well as other space probes.
But it is also intended to do other important tasks, including analyzing data from spacecraft in orbit, or taking photographs of rocks or debris on the surface of the planet.
NASA officials hope the vehicle, which would cost about $2 billion, will become the most powerful spaceplane in the world, according to a presentation made to a private audience at the annual Space Technology Association conference in Los Angeles last month.
“It will bring us into a new era of space exploration,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science.
There are a number of challenges, Grunsfield said, including how to put the spacecraft into space without having it collide with anything, which could cause a huge amount of damage.
To overcome these challenges, NASA is looking for partners to help develop the vehicle and the spacecraft.
An agency spokeswoman said the agency has “no timeline” for the development of the lander, but she added that the agency is “very much looking forward to working with the company to provide this spacecraft with the capabilities that we need to explore deep space.”
The NASA project would be funded through a $4 billion contract NASA has with Lockheed Martin to develop and launch the landers.
Lockheed Martin, the company that built the landings that made it possible for astronauts to reach the moon in the Apollo era, is now owned by General Dynamics Corp., a defense contractor.
More from The Wall St. Journal: NASA has been working with NASA-led partners to develop the spacecraft for decades, but NASA has had trouble finding them in a hurry.
Last year, the agency had only two partners, both of whom are private companies: SpaceX, the rocket company; and Blue Origin, a rocket company based in New Hampshire.
That left NASA scrambling to find a company that would be willing to help build and launch its new spacecraft.
The agency has been using a private company, Blue Origin of Bellevue, Wash., to build a version of the vehicle called the New Glenn.
Blue Origin is a privately owned company and was founded in 2006.
But it is not yet licensed to operate the vehicle that will launch the spacecraft, according the agency.
The agency is working with Boeing, the manufacturer of the 747 airliner that is used to transport people to and from the space station, to help with development of that version of Blue Origin’s landers, said Jay Carney, a NASA spokeswoman.
Blue and Boeing have a long history working together.
Blue Origin has been building the rocket engine for the space shuttle and other spacecraft, but in recent years the company has struggled to deliver the spacecraft that NASA needs for its missions.
In April, Blue announced that it would cease production of its rockets, the engines that power the space shuttles.
Blue is currently in talks with the government to buy a third of Blue’s rocket business.
The two companies are working on a contract for the land-orbiting lander.
The agency hopes to launch the New Shepard vehicle in 2021.