NASA Invests In Radical Game-Changing Concepts For Exploration

Every year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program puts out the call to the general public, hoping to find better or entirely new aerospace architectures, systems, or mission ideas. As part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, this program has been in operation since 1998, serving as a high-level entry point to entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers who want to contribute to human space exploration.

This year, thirteen concepts were chosen for Phase I of the NIAC program, ranging from reprogrammed microorganisms for Mars, a two-dimensional spacecraft that could de-orbit space debris, an analog rover for extreme environments, a robot that turn asteroids into spacecraft, and a next-generation exoplanet hunter. These proposals were awarded $100,000 each for a nine month period to assess the feasibility of their concept.

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NASA Announces ‘Take the Plunge’ Contest – Guess when LADEE Hits the Moon – Soon!

You can enter NASA’s ‘Take the Plunge’ contest and guess LADEE’s impending lunar impact date, expected on or before April 21, 2014. Credit: NASA
Contest entry details below – deadline soon[/caption]

When will LADEE hit the Moon for its looming end of mission finale?

NASA’s resoundingly successful LADEE lunar dust exploring mission is nearly out of gas – and needs your help, now!

With its inevitable doom approaching, NASA needs you to summon your thoughts and is challenging you to participate in a ‘Take the Plunge’ contest – figuratively not literally – and guess LADEE’s impending impact date.

LADEE, which stand for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, will smack violently into the Moon and scatter into zillions of bits and pieces sometime in the next two and a half weeks, on or before about April 21.

But exactly when will it impact the lunar surface? NASA wants to hear your best guess!

The ‘Take the Plunge’ contest was announced by NASA today, April 4, at a media briefing.

For more information about the challenge and how to enter, visit: http://socialforms.nasa.gov/ladee

This dissolve  animation compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) of LADEE  captured on Jan 14, 2014 with a computer-generated and labeled image of LADEE .  LRO and LADEE are both NASA science spacecraft currently in orbit around the Moon. Credit:  NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
This dissolve animation compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) of LADEE captured on Jan 14, 2014 with a computer-generated and labeled image of LADEE . LRO and LADEE are both NASA science spacecraft currently in orbit around the Moon. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Between now and its inevitable doom, mission controllers will command LADEE to continue gathering groundbreaking science.

And it will do so at an even lower attitude that it orbits today by firing its orbit maneuvering thrusters tonight and this weekend.

The couch sized probe seeks to eek out every last smidgeon of data about the Moons ultra tenuous dust and atmospheric environment from an ultra low altitude just a few miles (km) above the pockmarked lunar surface.

But because the moon’s gravity field is so uneven, the probes thrusters must be frequently fired to keep it on course and prevent premature crashes.

“The moon’s gravity field is so lumpy, and the terrain is so highly variable with crater ridges and valleys that frequent maneuvers are required or the LADEE spacecraft will impact the moon’s surface,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at Ames.

“Even if we perform all maneuvers perfectly, there’s still a chance LADEE could impact the moon sometime before April 21, which is when we expect LADEE’s orbit to naturally decay after using all the fuel onboard.”

LADEE will fly as low as fly approximately 1 to 2 miles (2 to 3 kilometers) above the surface.

Everyone of all ages is eligible to enter NASA’s “Take the Plunge: LADEE Impact Challenge.”

The submissions deadline is 3 p.m. PDT Friday, April 11.

NASA says that winners post impact. They will receive a commemorative, personalized certificate from the LADEE program via email.

Series of LADEE star tracker images features the lunar terrain.  Credit: NASA Ames
Series of LADEE star tracker images features the lunar terrain. Credit: NASA Ames

Watch for my upcoming story on LADEE’s science accomplishments and what’s planned for her final days.

LADEE was launched on Sept. 6, 2013 from NASA Wallops in Virginia on a science mission to investigate the composition and properties of the Moon’s pristine and extremely tenuous atmosphere, or exosphere, and untangle the mysteries of its lofted lunar dust dating back to the Apollo Moon landing era.

Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia, viewing site 2 miles away. Antares rocket launch pad at left.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia, viewing site 2 miles away. Antares rocket launch pad at left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The science mission duration had initially been planned to last approximately 100 days and finish with a final impact on the Moon on about March 24th.

NASA granted LADEE a month long extension since the residual rocket fuel is more than anticipated due to the expertise of LADEE’s navigation engineers and the precision of the launch atop the Orbital Sciences Minotaur V rocket and orbital insertion.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing LADEE, Chang’e-3, Orion, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Mars rover and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13 and at Washington Crossing State Park, NJ on April 6.

Ken Kremer

Full scale model of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on display at the free visitor center at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Full scale model of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on display at the free visitor center at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Google Subsidiary To Negotiate For Giant Eight-Acre NASA California Facility, Hangar One

Back in late 2011, three Google executives reportedly approached NASA because they knew the agency was facing a problem. NASA was managing the eight-acre Hangar One, which is best remembered for being an airship construction facility 80 years ago. Renovations were getting expensive, though, and the executives had a proposal: it would take over the fixing-up, as long as they could park several private jets in the facility.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and after a competitive process Google real estate subsidiary Planetary Ventures LLC is going to negotiate on a lease with two goals: fix up Hangar One and manage Moffett Federal Airfield. If approved, the lease would remove the NASA Ames Research Center’s management costs.

It’s another example of NASA looking to lease out its historic facilities to the private sector (examples: here and here) to save money amid cost-consciousness by federal legislators, something that administrator Charles Bolden highlighted in a statement. “The agreement announced today will benefit the American taxpayer and the community around Moffett,” he said. “It will allow NASA to focus its resources on core missions, while protecting the federal need to use Moffett Field as a continued, limited-use airfield.”

An undated photo showing a blimp inside Hangar One. The facility began as a facility for airships in the 1930s. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
An undated photo showing a blimp inside Hangar One. The facility began as a facility for airships in the 1930s. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

Lease terms are still being negotiated, but these are some of the things expected to be a part of it: rehabilitating Hangars One, 2 and 3, fixing up a golf course, starting a public use and educational facility, and getting rid of NASA’s operation and maintenance cost of the area, among other things. In a press release, NASA did not give a date as to when these negotiations would conclude.

As Wired points out, this is an indication that Google and NASA are becoming trusted partners in ventures such as this. “It underscores the increasingly tight relationship between Google and the space agency research center, located just three miles from Google’s headquarters,” wrote Robert McMillan. “Google has already leased more than 40 acres of NASA Ames space to build a 1.2-million-square-foot R&D facility, and the company is working with NASA to test the world’s first quantum computer at Ames too.”

You can read the request for proposals and other information on Hangar One at this NASA website.