Space Exploration Technologies

NASA Takes Six Advanced Tech Concepts to Phase II

It’s that time again. NIAC (NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts) has announced six concepts that will receive funding and proceed to the second phase of development. This is always an interesting look at the technologies and missions that could come to fruition in the future.

The six chosen ones will each receive $600,000 in funding to pursue the ideas for the next two years. NASA expects each team to use the two years to address both technical and budgetary hurdles for their concepts. When this second phase comes to an end, some of the concepts could advance to the third stage.

“These diverse, science fiction-like concepts represent a fantastic class of Phase II studies,” said John Nelson, NIAC program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Our NIAC fellows never cease to amaze and inspire, and this class definitely gives NASA a lot to think about in terms of what’s possible in the future.”

Here they are.

Fluidic Telescope (FLUTE): Enabling the Next Generation of Large Space Observatories

Telescopes are built around mirrors and lenses, whether they’re ground-based or space-based. The JWST’s large mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter but had to be folded up to fit inside the rocket that launched it and then unfolded in space. That’s a tricky engineering feat. Engineers are building larger and larger ground-based telescopes, too, and they’re equally tricky to design and build. Could FLUTE change this?

FLUTE envisions lenses made of fluid, and the FLUTE team’s concept describes a space telescope with a primary mirror 50 meters (164 ft.) in diameter. Creating glass lenses for a telescope this large isn’t realistic. “Using current technologies, scaling up space telescopes to apertures larger than approximately 33 feet (10 meters) in diameter does not appear economically viable,” the FLUTE website states.

But in the microgravity of space, fluids behave in an intriguing way. Surface tension holds liquids together at their surfaces. We can see this on Earth, where some insects use surface tension to glide along the surfaces of ponds and other bodies of water. Also, on Earth, surface tension holds small drops of water together. But in space, away from Earth’s dominating gravity, surface tension is much more effective. There, water maintains the most energy efficient shape there is: a sphere.

Another force governs water: adhesion. Adhesion causes liquids to cling to surfaces. In the microgravity of space, adhesion can bind liquid to a circular, ring-like frame. Then, due to surface tension, the liquid will naturally adopt a spherical shape. If the liquid can be made to bulge inward rather than outward, and if the liquid is reflective enough, it creates a telescope mirror.

The FLUTE team would like to make optical components in space. The liquid would stay in the liquid state and form an extremely smooth light-collecting surface. As a bonus, FLUTE would also self-repair after any micrometeorite strike.

The FLUTE study is led by Edward Balaban from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. The FLUTE team has already done some tests on the ISS and on zero-g flights.

FLUTE researchers experience microgravity aboard Zero Gravity Corporation’s G-FORCE ONE aircraft while operating an experiment payload during a series of parabolic flights. Image Credits: Zero Gravity Corporation/Steve Boxall

Pulsed Plasma Rocket (PPR): Shielded, Fast Transits for Humans to Mars

It takes too long to get to Mars. It’s a six-month journey each way, plus time spent on the surface. All that time in microgravity, exposure to radiation, and other challenges make the trip very difficult for astronauts. PPR aims to fix that.

PPR isn’t a launch vehicle for escaping Earth’s gravity well. It would be launched on a heavy lift vehicle like SLS and then sent on its way.

PPR was originally derived from the Pulsed Fission Fusion concept. But it’s more affordable, and also smaller and simpler. PPR might generate 100,000 N of thrust with a specific impulse (Isp) of 5,000 seconds. Those are good numbers. PPR could reduce the travel time to Mars to two months.

It has other benefits as well. It could propel larger spacecraft to Mars on trips longer than two months, carrying more cargo and also provide heavier shielding against cosmic rays. “The PPR enables a whole new era in space exploration,” the team writes.

PPR is basically a fusion system ignited by fission. It’s similar to a thermonuclear weapon. But rather than a run-away explosion, the combined energy is directed through a magnetic nozzle to produce thrust.

In phase two, the PPR team intends to optimize the engine design to produce more specific impulse, perform proof-of-concept experiments for major components, and design a shielded ship for human missions to Mars.

This study is led by Brianna Clements with Howe Industries in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The Great Observatory for Long Wavelengths (GO-LoW)

One of modern astronomy’s last frontiers is the low-frequency radio sky. Earth’s ionosphere blocks our ground-based telescopes from seeing it. And space-based telescopes can’t see it either. It’s because the wavelengths are so long, in the meter to the kilometre scale. Only extremely massive telescopes could see these waves clearly.

GO-LoW is a potential solution. It’s a space-based array of thousands of identical Small-Sats arranged as an interferometer. It would sit at an Earth-Sun Lagrange point and observe exoplanet and stellar magnetic fields. Exoplanet magnetic fields emit radio waves between 100 kHz and 15 MHz. The GO-LoW team says their interferometer could perform the first survey of exoplanetary magnetic fields within 5 parsecs (16 light years.) Magnetic fields tell scientists a lot about an exoplanet, its evolution, and its processes.

GO-LoW is a Great Observatory concept to open the last unexplored window of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. The Earth’s ionosphere becomes opaque at approximately 10m wavelengths, so GO-LoW will join Great Observatories like HST and JWST in space to access this spectral window. Image Credits: NASA/GO-LoW

While there’s no doubt that large telescopes like the JWST are powerful and effective, they’re extremely complex and expensive. And if something goes wrong with a critical component, the mission could end.

GO-LoW takes a different approach. By using thousands of individual satellites, the system is more resilient. GO-LoW would have a hybrid constellation. Some of the satellites would be smaller and simpler satellites called “listener nodes” (LN,) while a smaller number of them would be “communication and computation” nodes (CCNs). They would collect data from the LNs, process it, and beam it back to Earth.

The GO-LoW says it would only take a few heavy launches to place an entire 100,000 satellite constellation in space.

The technology for the SmallSats already exists. The challenge the GO-LoW team will address with their phase two funding is developing a system that will harness everything together effectively. “The coordination of all these physical elements, data products, and communications systems is novel and challenging, especially at scale,” they write.

GO-LoW is led by Mary Knapp with MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Radioisotope Thermoradiative Cell Power Generator

It’s sort of like solar power in reverse.

The RTCPG is a power source for spacecraft visiting the outer planets. They promise smaller, more efficient power generation for smaller science and exploration missions that can’t carry a solar power system or nuclear power system. Both those systems are bulky, and solar power is limited the further away from the sun a spacecraft goes.

The thermoradiative cell (TRC) uses radioisotopes to create heat as an MMRTG does. But the TRC uses the heat to generate infrared light which generates electricity. In initial testing, the system generated 4.5 times more power from the same amount of PU-238.

Much of phase two’s work will involve materials. “Metal-semiconductor contacts capable of surviving the required elevated temperatures will be investigated,” the team explains. The team developed a special cryostat testing apparatus in phase one.

“Building on our results from Phase I, we believe there is much more potential to unlock here,” the team writes.

This power generation concept study is from Stephen Polly at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

FLOAT: Flexible Levitation on a Track

What if Artemis is enormously successful? How will astronauts move their equipment around the lunar surface efficiently?

If the team behind FLOAT has their way, they’ll build the Moon’s first railway. Sort of. This artist’s concept shows a possible future mission depicting the lunar surface with planet Earth on the horizon. Image Credit: Ethan Schaler

FLOAT would provide autonomous transportation for payloads on the Moon. “A durable, long-life robotic transport system will be critical to the daily operations of a sustainable lunar base in the 2030’s,” the FLOAT team writes.

The heart of FLOAT is a three-layer flexible track that’s unrolled into position without major construction. It consists of three layers: a graphite layer, a flex-circuit layer, and a solar panel layer.

The graphite layer allows robots to use diamagnetic levitation to float over the track. The flex-circuit layer supplies the thrust that moves them, and the thin-film solar panel layer generates electricity for a lunar base when it’s in sunlight.

The system can be used to move regolith around for in-situ resource utilization and to transport payloads around a lunar base, for example, from landing zones to habitats.

“Individual FLOAT robots will be able to transport payloads of varying shape/size (>30 kg/m^2) at useful speeds (>0.5m/s), and a large-scale FLOAT system will be capable of moving up to 100,000s kg of regolith/payload multiple kilometres per day,” the FLOAT team explains.

With their phase two funding, the FLOAT team intends to design, build, and test scaled-down versions of FLOAT robots and track. Then, they’ll test their system in a lunar analog testbed. They’ll also test environmental effects on the system and how they alter the system’s performance and longevity.

Ethan Schaler leads FLOAT at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

SCOPE: ScienceCraft for Outer Planet Exploration

Some of the most intriguing planets and moons in the Solar System are well beyond Jupiter. But exploring them is challenging. Extremely long travel times, restrictive mission windows, and large expenses limit our exploration. But SCOPE aims to address these limitations.

Typically, a spacecraft carries a propulsion and power system along with its instruments and communication systems. NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter, for example, carries a chemical rocket engine for propulsion, 50 square meters of solar panels, and 10 science instruments. The solar panels alone weigh 340 kg (750 lbs.) Juno is powerful, produces a wide variety of quality science data, and is expensive.

ScienceCraft takes a different approach. It combines a single science instrument and spacecraft into one monolithic structure. It’s basically a solar sail with a built-in spectrometer. They’re aiming their design at the Neptune-Triton system.

This artist’s depiction shows ScienceCraft, which integrates the science instrument with the spacecraft by printing a quantum dot spectrometer directly on the solar sail to form a monolithic, lightweight structure.
Image Credit: Mahmooda Sultana

“By printing an ultra-lightweight quantum dot-based spectrometer, developed by the PI Sultana, directly on the solar sail, we create a breakthrough spacecraft architecture allowing an unprecedented parallelism and throughput of data collection and rapid travel across the solar system,” the ScienceCraft team writes.

Instead of merely providing the propulsion, the sail doubles as the spacecraft’s science instrument. The small mass means that ScienceCraft could be carried into orbit as a secondary payload. The team says they’ll use phase two to identify and develop key technologies for the spacecraft and to further mature the mission concept. They say that because of the low cost and simplicity, they could be ready by 2045.

“By leveraging these benefits, we propose a mission concept to Triton, a unique planetary body in our solar system, within the short window that closes around 2045 to answer compelling science questions about Triton’s atmosphere, ionosphere, plumes and internal structure,” the ScienceCraft team explains.

ScienceCraft is led by NASA’s Mahmooda Sultana at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Evan Gough

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