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Finding the Next Generation of Space Tech

On June 5, NASA announced funding for 12 proposals to develop technologies that could form the core of future space missions.

The proposals are funded through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, NASA’s mad-science equivalent of DARPA.  The NIAC program is charged with finding and funding potentially innovative new technologies that will support NASA’s exploration of the Solar System, both for manned and unmanned missions.

Projects that are funded through the NIAC program are selected because they have the potential to improve future exploration missions or even enable completely new ones. Today’s proposals were selected for Phase I funding, which gives successful candidates nine months and $100,000 to perform basic feasibility studies and refine their ideas. If those studies pan out, the proposal is eligible for Phase II funding, which provides $500,000 over two years to further explore the technology and its applications. Between the program’s beginning in 2011 and 2013, the NIAC funded 60 studies, 16 of which have made to Phase II funding.

NIAC’s proposals are peer-reviewed and screened to find technologies that could provide substantial future value. Although these technologies are in the early stages of their development cycle, they could eventually provide the backbone of future NASA missions. This year’s successful proposals are primarily focused on safe, economical space exploration. They include new life support technologies that will help NASA send people further into space, tools that may help with NASA’s Asteroid Initiative, and exciting new methods to speed up the exploration of the Solar System.

“We are working with innovators around the nation to transform the future of aerospace, while also focusing our investments on concepts to address challenges of current interests both in space and here on Earth,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.


Here’s a quick rundown of this year’s successful proposals:


3D Photocatalytic Air Processor concept art. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

3D Photocatalytic Air Processor concept art. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

3D Photocatalytic Air Processor – Titanium dioxide (TiO2), when exposed to ultraviolet light, acts as a catalyst to break water down into hydroxyl ions. These ions purify the air by breaking down bacteria and odor-causing chemicals. This project would use 3D printing technology to increase the surface area of the TiO2 filter. These high-strength air processors would reduce the complexity of air purification systems that are currently used on the International Space Station and for future manned missions.

Aragoscope – The aragoscope is a device that could be used boost the resolution of a telescope. Counterintuitively, it blocks the front of the telescope with a large disk. However, light diffracts around the edges of this disk, converging to form an image at a point some distance behind the disk, known as Arago’s spot. The resolution provided by the spot is proportional to the size of the disk. The developer behind the Aragoscope, Webster Cash (University of Colorado), states that it may be possible to resolve objects as small as 7cm from geosynchronous orbit, or produce a cheap telescope with 1000 times the resolving power of Hubble.

ChipSat – ChipSat is an attempt to push the miniaturization of satellites to a new extreme. Future remote survey probes may be able to explore a new world before unleashing their payload of ChipSats, which are fully functional spacecraft on a circuit board. The ChipSats would be extremely cheap and could perform measurements over a large number of locations on the surface of the target.

Comet Hitchhiker – Comet Hitchhiker is a surprisingly simple concept where the main difficulty lies in implementation. The basic idea comes from fishing: when a fast-moving fish is hooked, a good fisherman will sometimes slowly release the line, allowing the fish to accelerate the boat. In the same way, Comet Hitchhiker will harpoon a comet and allow it to tug on a carbon nanotube tether, using the orbital energy of the comet to accelerate the probe. Once the desired velocity is reached, the tether is cut and the probe flung off towards its target. Alternatively, the tether could be reeled back in, allowing the probe to make a soft landing on the comet.

HERTS – HERTS (Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System) is a large, electrically powered solar sail. The sail generates an electrical field, which captures energy from charged particles emitted by the Sun. HERTS could be used to power a mission to study the heliopause region, where the Sun’s solar wind stops. Soon after launch, a heliopause mission with a HERTS sail could be traveling at speeds of over 100km/s, allowing it to start performing heliopause research within a few years of its launch. For comparison the furthest manmade object from the Sun, Voyager 1, is only now reaching the heliopause region, 37 years after it launched.

Mars Ecopoiesis Testbed – Ecopoiesis is the generation of a new ecosystem in a region where one currently doesn’t exist. The Mars Ecopoiesis Testbed is an experiment that could be included on a future Mars lander. It would test the habitability of the Martian soil by collecting a large sample, sealing it off, and introducing carefully selected extremophile bacteria to see if they survive. This experiment would be a major step forward in testing some theories of planetary biology, and in the distant future could be the basis for future terraformation projects.

Neutrino probing of icy moons – One of the most difficult challenges of exploring icy moons is their thick shells of ice. If NASA is ever going to undertake projects like exploring Europa’s oceans, it first needs to know how much ice it needs to drill through. Europa Clipper, probably NASA’s next mission to the Jovian system, will use a radar system to probe the thickness of the ice. The drawback is that radar systems are heavy and require a lot of power, both of which increase the cost of the mission.

Instead of a radar system, this proposal suggests using cosmic-ray neutrinos to probe the thickness of ice. Neutrinos are tiny, nearly massless particles that can travel near the speed of light. Although they rarely interact with normal matter, they occasionally collide with a proton or neutron to create a particle shower. When these showers occur in a dense medium, individual particles may exceed the speed of light and produce Cerenkov radiation (best known as the blue glow in underwater nuclear reactors). In ice, Cerenkov radiation occurs as radio waves, which could be detected by a simple radio receiver tuned to the right frequencies. Initial studies lead by Timothy Miller (John Hopkins University) using balloons over Antarctica suggest that this method may be well suited for use at Europa.

PERISCOPE – Short for PERIapsis Subsurface Cave OPtical Explorer, PERISCOPE is a lidar system that can see inside lunar or martian caves through small skylights, holes where the cave roof has collapsed. When lidar pulses are sent through the holes from a number of different angles, their reflections can be used to build up a picture of the cave’s interior.  The PERISCOPE team has a diagram illustrating how the technology works here.

Swarm Gravimetry – Gravitational studies of planets and moons take a long time to carry out, because they rely on a probe making

Titan Submarine concept art. Credit: NASA Glenn Research Center

Titan Submarine concept art. Credit: NASA Glenn Research Center

multiple flybys of the target body. During each flyby, scientists carefully measure the deflection of the spacecraft’s orbit caused by the target. Each flyby builds up a clearer picture of the target’s gravitational field. Swarm gravimetry aims to reduce the time spent building up a picture of the body’s gravitational field by simply throwing a cluster of small, disposable spacecraft at it. If released far enough out, the swarm disperses before it encounters the body, allowing scientists to perform flybys from multiple angles at once. A basic illustration of this concept can be seen here.

Titan Aerial Daughtercraft – Future missions to Titan have a number of different ways with which to explore the second largest moon in the Solar System. In recent years, missions have been proposed ranging from balloon platforms, helicopters, and rovers. The philosophy behind the Titan Aerial Daughtercraft is, “why not do all three?” The daughtercraft is a small rotorcopter that would weigh only 10kg. Using a balloon platform as a central base of operations, it would fly around to perform large scale surveys, land on the surface to collect surveys for analysis back at the balloon, and when it’s done with all that recharge its batteries using the balloon platform’s RTGs.

Titan Submarine – Most mission concepts for exploring Europa’s oceans or Titan’s seas are based around a floating platform with equipment that can be lowered into the body of liquid. Titan Submarine is the first attempt to design an autonomous submarine that can explore beneath the waves to perform sample analysis. Titan Submarine would also provide an excellent platform to perform the kind of hydrological surveys that are common on Earth: studying currents, temperature profiles, and the degree of mixing in the water (or ethane) column. Titan Submarine would explore Titan’s Kraken Mare, a hydrocarbon lake roughly comparable in size and depth to Lake Superior.

WRANGLER – Weightless Rendezvous And Net Grapple to Limit Excess Rotation (WRANGLER) is a device suited for NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. Developed by Tethers Unlimited, WRANGLER is a two part system that consists of a net and tethered winch system. A rapidly spinning asteroid or piece of space debris can be captured using the net. Once secured, the winch system releases a nanoscale satellite equipped with a thruster. The long tether length provides a large amount of leverage, allowing the satellite to slow down the target’s spin.

Complete summaries of the successful NIAC proposals can be found here.

Main image credit: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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About The Author
Justin Cowart
Justin Cowart is a geologist interested in Earth and Solar System history. As a geologist, he spends hist time looking at the ground, but in his free time he looks to the skies as an amateur astronomer.

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