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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Robot Spacecraft Swarm Among Group Tapped For More NASA Funding

How do crazy but neat ideas such as the Mars crane make it to space? It’s through years, sometimes decades, of development to try to solve a problem in space exploration. NASA has an entire program devoted to far-out concepts that are at least a decade from making it into space, and has just selected five projects for a second round of funding.

One of them is a robotic swarm of spacecraft that we’ve written about before on Universe Today. Flying out from a mothership, these tiny spacecraft would be able to tumble across the surface of a low-gravity moon or asteroid.

“The systematic exploration of small bodies would help unravel the origin of the solar system and its early evolution, as well as assess their astrobiological relevance,” stated its principal investigator, Stanford University’s Marco Pavone, in a 2012 story. “In addition, we can evaluate the resource potential of small bodies in view of future human missions beyond Earth.”

The concept, called “Spacecraft/Rover Hybrids for the Exploration of Small Solar System Bodies“, is among the selectees in the second phase of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program. Each will receive up to $500,000 to further develop their concept during the next two years. While Phase I studies are considered to show if a project is feasible, Phase II begins to narrow down the design.

Artist's conception of a 10-meter sub-orbital large balloon reflector funded under NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program. Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of a 10-meter sub-orbital large balloon reflector funded under NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program. Credit: NASA

“This was an extremely competitive year for NIAC Phase II candidates,” stated Jay Falker, the program’s executive at NASA Headquarters. “But the independent peer review process helped identify those that could be the most transformative, with outstanding potential for future science and exploration.”

This is the rest of the selected concepts:

10 meter Sub-Orbital Large Balloon Reflector (Christopher Walker, University of Arizona): A telescope that uses part of a balloon as a reflector. The telescope would fly high in the atmosphere, perhaps doing examinations of Earth’s atmosphere or performing telecommunications or surveillance.

Deep mapping of small solar system bodies with galactic cosmic ray secondary particle showers (Thomas Prettyman, Planetary Science Institute): Using subatomic particles to map asteroids, comets and other smaller objects in the solar system.

Low-Mass Planar Photonic Imaging Sensor (Ben S.J. Yoo, University of California, Davis): A new way of thinking about telescopes that would use a low-mass planar photonic imaging sensor. This could be useful for missions to the outer solar system.

Orbiting Rainbows (Marco Quadrelli, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory): Using “an orbiting cloud of dust-like matter” for astronomical imaging by taking advantage of the spots where light passes through.

Source: NASA

Study Looks at Making Asteroid Mining Viable

Artist concept of the Robotic Asteroid Prospector. Credit: Marc Cohen et al.

There’s been a lot of buzz in the media lately about mining asteroids, largely brought on by the introduction of Planetary Resources, Peter Diamandis’ new venture into the industry. But is this business proposition actually viable? NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts is funding a study that hopes to answer that question.

Called the Robotic Asteroid Prospector proposal, the project is part of the NIAC’s Phase I program awardees. It is headed by Dr. Marc Cohen, an architect based in Palo Alto California, with help from Warren James, a trajectory expert, Kris Zacny, a roboticist at Honeybee Robotics and Brad Blair, a mineral economist. Their proposal studies the fundamentals of some major questions facing the asteroid mining industry. What kinds of mission and spacecraft design are necessary? Is the right kind of mining technology available? And most importantly, is there even a viable business model for doing it in the first place?

Dr. Cohen himself is skeptical that there is, but points out that’s part of the reason he’s so interested in performing the research. Contributing to his skepticism are the numerous assumptions the proposal is based on. These include a telescope in Venus orbit to help the search for near-Earth objects (one of NASA’s primary mission statements, and similar to the B612 Foundation’s space telescope that will hunt for Near Earth Asteroids) and regular commercial access to a service base located in a Lagrange point from which to launch the missions.

“We’re trying to make the assumptions really clear, specific and explicit, so we understand what the trade-offs are,” Dr. Cohen told Universe Today. “One thing we’re being very careful about is not going in with any preconceptions.”

The assumptions lead to a spacecraft design, possibly using a solar-thermal propulsion system, that launches to a NEO from the Lagrange point station, mines and processes the material at the asteroid and then returns it to the Lagrange point for shipment back to Earth.

Dr. Cohen explained that the team is trying to find the requirements that would make a robotic asteroid program commercially successful.

There are still plenty of challenges to solve, including developing trajectories that allow the spacecraft to make repeated, short trips to the asteroid it is mining and handling any sort of technical problems without a human presence nearby. If it manages to resolve some of those difficulties, the project could result in the outlines of one of the backbones of the future space economy. It might also attract funding for the Phase II round of funding from NIAC next year.

For more information about the RAP, see the NIAC website

NASA Looking at Dozens of Advanced Technology Concepts

The Contour Crafting Simulation Plan for Lunar Settlement Infrastructure Build-Up, a NIAC-supported concept.
Rendering courtesy of Behnaz Farahi and Connor Wingfield

All the media focus surrounding the recent landing of NASA’S rover Curiosity has brought increased attention to space technology. Just in time to bask in the limelight, NASA has delivered a tech enthusiast’s dream in terms of astounding new concepts that have recently been funded. They range in scope from nanosatellite technology to the exploration under the ice of Europa.

NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts program announced on August 1st that it has funded 28 studies for the upcoming year. Eighteen of the studies are considered “Phase 1” projects, while ten are considered “Phase 2.”

Phase 1 projects are the new, innovative ideas that NASA received during its call for proposals. Some other conepts include an air purification system with no moving parts, and a system that could use in situ lunar regolith to autonomously build concrete structures on the Moon, as pictured above. Each of the winning proposals, from a pool of hundreds, will receive $100,000 to pursue the idea further. Each team will report back to NIAC at the end of the year with a report on their progress toward the goals of the project that were laid out in the proposal.

Phase 2 projects are pulled from the successful proposals from last year that reapplied for another grant. These projects have already made it through their Phase 1 development and will receive $500,000 for continuing research into the concept. These projects include such technologies as fusion-driven rockets and printable space-craft, and could move on to commercial or mission development if they successfully complete their Phase 2 goals. Other parts of NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist will help support those goals, as the NIAC only supports project up through the completion of Phase 2.

The NIAC ties nicely into NASA’s new focus on the commercial side of space flight. Many of the concepts funded by the program could serve as the basis for viable commercial businesses, such as asteroid mining and robotic construction. But most importantly, NASA is still funding the risky, game-changing projects that could drastically transform the way people live their every-day lives. Tech enthusiasts everywhere should be happy with that concept.

You can see here for a list of the proposals. We’ll try to feature some of these in future articles.

Space Exploration By Robot Swarm

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With all there’s yet to learn about our solar system from the many smaller worlds that reside within it — asteroids, protoplanets and small moons — one researcher from Stanford University is suggesting we unleash a swarm of rover/spacecraft hybrids that can explore en masse.

Marco Pavone, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University and research affiliate at JPL, has been developing a concept under NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program that would see small spherical robots deployed to small worlds, such as Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos, where they would take advantage of low gravity to explore — literally —  in leaps and bounds.

Due to the proposed low costs of such a mission, multiple spacecraft could be scattered across a world, increasing the area that could be covered as well as allowing for varied surfaces to be explored. Also, were one spacecraft to fail the entire mission wouldn’t be compromised.

The concept is similar to what NASA has done in the past with the Mars rovers, except multiplied in the number of spacecraft (and reduced in cost.)

The robots would be deployed from a “mother” spacecraft and spring into action upon landing, tumbling, hopping and vaulting their way across low-mass worlds.

In addition to providing our first views from the surfaces of such worlds, Pavone’s hybrid rovers could also help prepare for future, more in-depth exploration.

“The systematic exploration of small bodies would help unravel the origin of the solar system and its early evolution, as well as assess their astrobiological relevance,” Pavone explains. “In addition, we can evaluate the resource potential of small bodies in view of future human missions beyond Earth.”

Read more from NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist here.

Photo courtesy of Marco Pavone

NIAC is Back: NASA Funds 30 Innovative Ideas that Just Might Work

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What do these three things have in common: space debris elimination using an air gun, a heat shield made from lunar regolith and lightweight space structures made from ultra-light nanomaterials called “Photonic Muscle?”

They are just three of thirty new concepts that NASA has provided funding to move innovative ideas from formulation to implementation under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, or NIAC, program. Some of the concepts are new ways of dealing with persistent problems; others are completely new ideas, with some in the category that sound so crazy, they just might work.

“These advanced concepts selected for study under NIAC were chosen based on their potential to transform or significantly alter our current approaches to launching future space missions, or building and operating space systems,” said Dr. Bobby Braun, NASA’s Chief Technologist, during a teleconference on Aug. 8, 2011.

NIAC—formerly known as the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts – is back after being cut in 2007 due to budget constraints. The program began in 1998 and the closure of the think-tank-type of program was cause for dismay by those who believed part of NASA’s mission is to spur research and innovation.

“This was previously an outstanding program at NASA and I am excited to be part of the team that is bringing NIAC back,” said Braun. “This is really part of a small change going on within NASA to take it back to its roots with a focus on advanced technology and innovation.”

Braun added that technology and innovation goes hand in hand with space exploration. “Visionary thinking is important for maintaining our leadership in space,” he said.

Each proposal will receive approximately $100,000 for one year to advance the innovative space technology concept and help NASA meet operational and future mission requirements.

NASA received over 150 different proposals for funding, and the 30 were chosen based on their technical merits and their potential to mature into the transformative capabilities NASA is looking for to improve current space mission operations.

“Some of the proposals are risky, somewhat out-of-the-box ideas and very advanced system concepts that have the potential to revolutionize our missions in the future,” said Joe Parrish, director of the Early Stage Innovation division at NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist in the Space Technology division. “We recognize that in order to make big gains, sometimes we are going to accept some risks. NIAC is the greatest example of an effort to really look at very far-reaching activities and consciously and willingly take risks and look for big rewards to those risks.”

Some of the winning proposals include advanced propulsion and power systems for space, protecting humans from radiation in space, 3-D printing to construct mini spacecraft, and using flywheels to power a spacesuit.

“The most meritorious proposals allow us to look at many ways to address these problems, any of which would be breakthrough technologies,” said Parrish.

These first “new” NIAC projects were chosen based on being technically substantiated, and they could hopefully mature within about 10 years from mission infusion.

NASA anticipates the funding starting dates to be in early September 2011. “We hope to have NIAC studies on an annual basis, and concepts that do well in their first year could receive up $500,000 for up to two years of additional research,” said Jay Falker, NIAC program executive.

The previous NIAC allowed only non-NASA employees to apply, but the new incarnation permits NASA-based personnel to seek funding for their ideas.

In 2008, the National Research Council conducted a review of NIAC’s effectiveness and made concluded that NASA and the US would be well served by maintaining a mechanism to investigate visionary, far-reaching advanced concepts as part of the agency’s mission. Following an October 2009 hearing by the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, NASA re-established the NIAC program during fiscal year 2011.

Some of the avant-garde and risky ideas funded under the previous NIAC included the space elevator — a cable to ferry equipment from Earth into orbit — and a solar shield to be unfurled in space to deflect sunlight and counter global warming.

The new concepts announced yesterday include both well-known issues and completely new designs. For example, space debris is a well-identified issue that NASA’s been working on, but using an air gun from a high altitude balloon to shoot pulses into the upper atmosphere to slow down debris is “an approach that’s completely novel to a problem we’ve known about,” Falker said.

See the complete list of winning concepts here. Got an idea? More information about NIAC can be found here.

Over the next few weeks, we hope to feature several of these concepts in more detail.

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.