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"Second star to the right, and straight on till morning."

Turning on his warp engines, this was the direction Capt. James T. Kirk gave his helmsman in Star Trek VI (quoting, curiously enough, from another film -- Walt Disney's 1953 version of Peter Pan). It's also the general direction in which NASA is heading with a series of new contract announcements issued just last month.

Within a wide-ranging announcement covering "public-private partnership" awards to develop space tech in series of fields -- everything from engines to space habitats to tiny satellites -- NASA confirmed in March that it has selected three companies to develop a new deep space engine to power interplanetary travel.

The contestants include privately held Ad Astra Rocket Co. and MSNW LLC, along with the Aerojet Rocketdyne division of space tech stalwart GenCorp (NYSE: GY  ) . Working under the aegis of NASA's Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, program, these three companies will offer the agency three separate flavors of cutting-age space engine tech. Generally speaking, none of the three will work on an actual "warp drive," but rather versions of ion propulsion. Respectively:

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