NASA is considering some wild future tech
The future of space exploration requires big ideas, and NASA has no objection to considering some of the biggest ideas out there. The space agency’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program exists for precisely this purpose, and it has selected the following set of concepts worthy of initial study.
The latest round of NIAC grants awarded to 14 research teams, each receiving $175,000 to further develop their concepts. NASA announced yesterday. Of the 14, 10 are first-time NIAC recipients. These are all preliminary Phase I studies, to be completed within nine months.
“These initial Phase I NIAC studies help NASA determine whether these futuristic ideas could pave the way for future space exploration capabilities and enable amazing new missions,” Michael LaPointe, program director for NIAC, said in the statement.
Success in Phase I could lead some of these concepts to move to Phase II, where the researchers will receive more funding and two more years to further develop their ambitious plans. Only a select few make it to third base: Phase III.
NIAC grants typically cover a broad spectrum of space-based interests, and the selections for this year are no different. NASA strikes a balance between Earth and space science, space exploration and, of particular importance to the space agency, the advancement of its Artemis agenda, under which NASA strives for a sustainable and long-lasting return to the Moon.
One of the more eye-catching concepts is the AirTitan project devised by planetary scientist Quinn Morley of Planet Enterprises. There have been several concepts for exploring Saturn’s moon Titan previously proposedand NASA is already in the middle of it preparation for the Dragonfly mission, but Morley’s idea is clearly next level. The AirTitan autonomous vehicle would be as comfortable flying in Titan’s dense atmosphere as sailing on its methane lakes.
Morley envisions daily flights for AirTitan as it transitions seamlessly from watercraft (er, methanecraft?) to airplanes. In addition to sampling Titan’s complex atmosphere, the probe would collect and analyze liquid samples. Indeed, Titan is of great astrobiological importance, as it may harbor prebiotic organic chemistry. That said, the thick oily lakes could be a problem, but an inflatable wing liner could “provide resiliency and reduce silt buildup issues,” Morley said.
Satellite mega constellations for astronomy
NASA is also interested in the Great observatory for long wavelengths (GO-LoW) concept proposed by Mary Knapp of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This space-based observatory would consist of thousands of identical satellites operating at the fifth Earth-Sun Lagrange point (L5). By searching for radio emissions with frequencies between 100 kHz and 15 MHz, the satellite array could study the magnetic fields of distant exoplanets and detect rocky exoplanets similar to ours.
The “fail fast, fail cheap” approach is a drastic departure from traditional practices,” Knapp writes, adding that “SpaceX and other new entrants to the launcher market have driven the market to drive costs down further, through manufacturing innovations and the economy of scale behind megaconstellations.”
Pellet beam propulsion
NASA wants to be Artur Davoyan of the University of California, Los Angeles pellet propulsion system concept, which envisions the mechanical and aerospace engineer as a means of transporting heavy spacecraft to targets in the solar system and even interstellar space. The proposed propulsion system would use a pellet jet — a jet of microscopic hypervelocity particles powered by lasers — to push spacecraft to desired locations. Unlike other concepts, the pellet jet allows the transport of heavy spacecraft, which Davoyan says “greatly expands the scope of possible missions”.
Pellet-beam propulsion could deliver payloads to the outer planets in less than a year and to distances more than 100 times the distance between Earth and the sun (ouch) in about three years, he claims. For the current study, Davoyan will consider the effectiveness of using the pellet jet to transport a 1-ton load to 500 au in less than 20 years. For reference, Pluto is “only” 35.6 AU from Earth, while NASA’s Voyager 2, which launched 45 years ago, is now about 133 AU from Earth.
An oxygen pipeline at the moon’s south pole
A key priority for NASA’s Artemis program is maintaining a sustainable presence on the Moon, a challenge the space agency could overcome by using on-site resources, such as extracting oxygen from the moon’s regolith (soil) and water ice. Peter Curreri of Lunar Resources in Houston agrees, but he’s not a fan of NASA’s current plan, as he explains:
Current funded in-situ efforts [on-site] oxygen extraction consists of bottling the oxygen in compressed gas tanks or liquefying it and storing it in dewars. Both approaches require transporting tanks or dewars to different facilities for use. The process of moving this oxygen on rovers is more energy intensive than the extraction process and is considered the MOST expensive aspect of obtaining in-situ oxygen for use on the moon, given the long distances a resource extraction area will have from a human habitat or liquefaction plant.
Instead, Curreri proposes a lunar pipeline, which would be built at the moon’s south pole, since that’s where most of the moon’s water ice is located. The concept caught the attention of NASA, resulting in the Phase I research grant.
The pipelines would provide settlers with constant access to precious oxygen, while also connecting dispersed settlements. “A lunar pipeline has never been pursued and will revolutionize operations on the lunar surface for the Artemis program and reduce costs and risks,” says Curreri.
Growing bricks on Mars
NASA also has its sights set on Mars, so it wants Congrui Grace Jin, an engineer from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to flesh out her idea of growing rocks on Mars, rather than importing them from Earth. Indeed, settlers will need to build structures on Mars, but this will require launching materials on separate missions, which increases costs. More practically, Jin’s research suggests that, rather than shipping prefabricated equipment elements to Mars, habitat equipment could be realized through in-situ construction using cyanobacteria and fungi as building materials.
These microbes would be coaxed into generating biominerals and polymers to glue the Martian regolith into building blocks. “These self-growing building blocks can later be assembled into various structures, such as floors, walls, partitions, and furniture,” Jin writes.
These are just a few of the 14 concepts chosen by NASA for this year’s NIAC grant. You can learn more about the other research proposals here. And to be clear, these concepts have not yet been approved as actual projects – they all have yet to pass the NASA sniff test. Some and possibly all of them of these ideas may die on the vine, but speculations like this are always worth it and a taste of what might eventually be possible.
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