Future Space Telescopes Could be 100 Meters Across, Constructed in Space, and Then Bent Into a Precise Shape

Graphic depiction of Bend-Forming of Large Electrostatically Actuated Space Structures. Credit: Zachary Cordero

It is an exciting time for astronomers and cosmologists. Since the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), astronomers have been treated to the most vivid and detailed images of the Universe ever taken. Webb‘s powerful infrared imagers, spectrometers, and coronographs will allow for even more in the near future, including everything from surveys of the early Universe to direct imaging studies of exoplanets. Moreover, several next-generation telescopes will become operational in the coming years with 30-meter (~98.5 feet) primary mirrors, adaptive optics, spectrometers, and coronographs.

Even with these impressive instruments, astronomers and cosmologists look forward to an era when even more sophisticated and powerful telescopes are available. For example, Zachary Cordero 
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently proposed a telescope with a 100-meter (328-foot) primary mirror that would be autonomously constructed in space and bent into shape by electrostatic actuators. His proposal was one of several concepts selected this year by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for Phase I development.

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Study Shows How Cells Could Help Artemis Astronauts Exercise

NASA’s Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts further into space than ever before using a module based on Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV). Credit: NASA

In 2033, NASA and China plan to send the first crewed missions to Mars. These missions will launch every two years when Earth and Mars are at the closest points in their orbits (Mars Opposition). It will take these missions six to nine months to reach the Red Planet using conventional technology. This means that astronauts could spend up to a year and a half in microgravity, followed by months of surface operations in Martian gravity (roughly 40% of Earth gravity). This could have drastic consequences for astronaut health, including muscle atrophy, bone density loss, and psychological effects.

Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts maintain a strict exercise regimen to mitigate these effects. However, astronauts will not have the same option while in transit to Mars since their vehicles (the Orion spacecraft) have significantly less volume. To address this challenge, Professor Marni Boppart and her colleagues at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology are developing a process using regenerative cells. This work could help ensure that astronauts arrive at Mars healthy, hearty, and ready to explore!

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A Novel Propulsion System Would Hurl Hypervelocity Pellets at a Spacecraft to Speed it up

Graphic depiction of Pellet-Beam Propulsion for Breakthrough Space Exploration. Credits: Artur Davoyan

Today, multiple space agencies are investigating cutting-edge propulsion ideas that will allow for rapid transits to other bodies in the Solar System. These include NASA’s Nuclear-Thermal or Nuclear-Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) concepts that could enable transit times to Mars in 100 days (or even 45) and a nuclear-powered Chinese spacecraft that could explore Neptune and its largest moon, Triton. While these and other ideas could allow for interplanetary exploration, getting beyond the Solar System presents some major challenges.

As we explored in a previous article, it would take spacecraft using conventional propulsion anywhere from 19,000 to 81,000 years to reach even the nearest star, Proxima Centauri (4.25 light-years from Earth). To this end, engineers have been researching proposals for uncrewed spacecraft that rely on beams of directed energy (lasers) to accelerate light sails to a fraction of the speed of light. A new idea proposed by researchers from UCLA envisions a twist on the beam-sail idea: a pellet-beam concept that could accelerate a 1-ton spacecraft to the edge of the Solar System in less than 20 years.

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A new way to Peer Into the Permanently Shadowed Craters on the Moon, Searching for Deposits of Water ice

Not all flashlights are created equal. Some are stronger, consume more power, or have features such as blinking or strobes. Some aren’t even meant for humans, such as a new project that recently received funding from a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I award. Designed by the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), this flashlight doesn’t emit visible light, but it does emit x-rays and gamma rays, and the researchers on the project think it could be useful for finding resources on the Moon.

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A Mission to Reach the Solar Gravitational Lens in 30 Years

NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts is famous for supporting outlandish ideas in the astronomy and space exploration fields. Since being re-established in 2011, the institute has supported a wide variety of projects as part of its three-phase program. However, so far, only three projects have gone on to receive Phase III funding. And one of those just released a white paper describing a mission to get a telescope that could effectively see biosignatures on nearby exoplanets by utilizing the gravitational lens of our own Sun.

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A Huge Rotating Kilometer-Scale Space Station Could be Launched From a Single Rocket

Artificial gravity remains the stuff of science fiction.  But dealing with no gravity causes significant problems in many astronauts, ranging from bone deterioration to loss of sight.  An alternative method that might eliminate some of these problems is “simulated gravity,” which uses a spinning structure to create centrifugal force that would have the same effect on the body as gravity would.  Whether or not this would solve the problems caused by lack of gravity remains to be seen. Still, NASA seems keen on the idea – to the tune of a $600,000 NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase II grant to a team from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the University of Washington (UW) who is looking to develop a structure that can simulate full Earth gravity and be launched in a single rocket.

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The Best way to Leave the Solar System Might be to fly Uncomfortably Close to the Sun

We’ve reported before on the conceptual mission known as the Interstellar Probe.  This ambitious mission would visit the interstellar medium about 1,000 AU away from the Sun. But how exactly would the probe get there in a reasonable time frame? It has taken Voyager 35 years to travel less than 10% of that distance.  The answer might lie in an old technology that has been given new life by advances in material science – the solar thermal propulsion system.

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The new NIAC Awards are out! New Spacesuits, Breathing Martian air, Advanced Telescopes, and More

The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) has been a significant funder of pie in the sky research for a long time now.  From extrasolar object interceptors to beaming power into a lunar crater, we love reporting about NIAC funded concepts here at UT.  Now, a new crop of Phase I and a smaller but more focused crop of Phase II fellows are funded to push the boundaries of space exploration forward.

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Extrasolar Object Interceptor Would be Able to Chase Down the Next Oumuamua or Borisov and Actually Return a Sample

Artist’s depiction of the Extrasolar Object Interceptor. Credit: Christopher Morrison

What if we had the ability to chase down interstellar objects passing through our Solar System, like Oumuamua or Comet Borisov? Such a spacecraft would need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, with the capacity to increase speed and change direction quickly.

That’s the idea behind a new mission concept called the Extrasolar Object Interceptor and Sample Return spacecraft. It has received exploratory funding from NASA through its Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

“Bringing back samples from these objects could fundamentally change our view of the universe and our place in it,” says Christopher Morrison, an engineer from the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation-Tech (USNC-Tech) who submitted the proposal to NIAC.            

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Exploring the Moon’s Shadowed Regions Using Beamed Energy

Light Bender Artist Concept. Credits: Ronald Neale

In less than three years, astronauts will return to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. As part of the Artemis Program, the purpose is not only to send crewed missions back to the lunar surface to explore and collect samples. This time around, there’s also the goal of establishing vital infrastructure (like the Lunar Gateway and a Base Camp) that will allow for “sustained lunar exploration.”

A key requirement for this ambitious plan is the provision of power, which can be difficult in regions like the South Pole-Aitken Basin – a cratered region that is permanently-shadowed. To address this, a researcher from the NASA Langley Research Center named Charles Taylor has proposed a novel concept known as “Light Bender.” Using telescope optics, this system would to capture and distribute sunlight on the Moon.

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