WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA has selected seven technology proposals for continued study under Phase II of the agency’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program. The selections are based on the potential to transform future aerospace missions, introduce new capabilities or significantly improve current approaches to building and operating aerospace systems.
The selected proposals address a range of visionary concepts, including metallic lithium combustion for long-term robotics operations, submarines that explore the oceans of icy moons of the outer planets, and a swarm of tiny satellites that map gravity fields and characterize the properties of small moons and asteroids.
“NASA’s investments in early-stage research are important for advancing new systems concepts and developing requirements for technologies to enable future space exploration missions,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This round of Phase II selections demonstrates the agency’s continued commitment to innovations that may transform our nation’s space, technology and science capabilities.”
NIAC Phase II awards can be worth as much as $500,000 for a two-year study, and the awards allow proposers to further develop their concepts from previously-selected Phase I studies. Phase I studies must demonstrate the initial feasibility and benefit of a concept. Phase II studies allow awardees to refine their designs and explore aspects of implementing the new technology.
NASA selected these projects through a peer-review process that evaluated innovativeness and technical viability. All projects are still in the early stages of development, most requiring 10 or more years of concept maturation and technology development before use on a NASA mission.
“This is an excellent group of NIAC studies,” said Jason Derleth, NIAC Program executive at NASA Headquarters. “From seeing into cave formations on the moon to a radically new kind of solar sail that uses solar wind instead of light, NIAC continues to push the bounds of current technology.”
NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate innovates, develops, tests and flies hardware for use in future missions. Through programs such as NIAC, the directorate is demonstrating that early investment and partnership with scientists, engineers and citizen inventors from across the nation can provide technological dividends and help maintain America’s leadership in the new global technology economy.
For more information about NIAC, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/niac
2015 PHASE II FELLOWS
Principal Investigator: Justin Atchison
Proposal Title: Swarm Flyby Gravimetry
Organization: Johns Hopkins University
City, State: Laurel, MD
We propose a method for discerning the gravity fields and sub-surface mass distribution of a solar system small body, without requiring dedicated orbiters or landers. In this concept, a spacecraft releases a swarm of small, low-cost probes during a flyby past an asteroid or comet. By tracking those probes, we can estimate the asteroid’s gravity field and infer its underlying composition and porosity. This approach offers a diverse measurement set, equivalent to planning and executing many independent and unique flyby encounters of a single spacecraft. The resulting dataset can yield a global model of the body’s mass distribution and reveal unique aspects of the body’s interior that are otherwise unobservable. This concept offers the possibility of achieving new scientific measurements that extend our understanding of our solar system, benefit human spaceflight, and support planetary defense. It also represents a practical deep space application of the swarm paradigm that is common in other fields, in that the ensemble of deployed probes enables fundamentally new measurement sets. In Phase I we established a basic feasibility of the concept by simulating a series of asteroid encounters and evaluating the available tracking methods. In Phase II, we intend to address the key remaining risks and concerns by increasing the fidelity of our simulations, evaluating important trades, considering other relevant mission contexts, and prototyping and characterizing the dispenser and probes. These activities will be informed by active engagement with mission science and engineering leadership, with the objective of identifying a path forward for implementation.
3D Photocatalytic Air Processor for Dramatic Reduction of Life Support Mass and Complexity
University of California Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA
The abundant high-energy light in space (with wavelengths as low as 190 nm, compared to 300 nm on Earth) makes the TiO2 co-catalyst an ideal approach for sustainable air processing to generate O2, without consuming any thermal or electrical energy. The combination of novel photoelectrochemistry and 3-dimensional design allows tremendous mass savings, hardware complexity reduction, increases in deployment flexibility and removal efficiency. Operation at near ambient temperature and pressure is inherently safer for the crew. The potential exists for the high tortousity photoelectrocatalytic air processor design to achieve more than an order of magnitude in combined mass/volume/power/cooling resource savings.The proposed work will demonstrate these drastic reductions in comparison to current technology with delivery of high-tortuosity device components allowed by advanced manufacturing (potentially in space) at the end of the proposed work.
PERISCOPE: PERIapsis Subsurface Cave Optical Explorer
Nosanov Consulting, LLC
PERISCOPE is an instrument and mission concept with the goal of investigating and mapping lunar skylights from an orbiting platform using photon time-of-flight imaging. A spacecraft in a very low orbit would direct laser pulses into the lunar skylights, detect light returning to the spacecraft after multiple reflections in the cave, and transmit a summary of those data back to the Earth. A team on the ground would process that data to develop a 3d map of the interior void of the skylight that was at all times beyond the direct line of sight of the spacecraft. In phase I we showed the theoretical feasibility of this mission concept with a variety of simulations and analytical tools. In phase II we intend to bring this concept to a level capable of supporting a full mission proposal. We will perform more detailed trade studies, analyses, and experiments using real world materials as analogous to expected lunar subsurface material as possible.
Titan Submarine: Exploring the Depths of Kraken Mare
NASA Glenn Research Center
Phase II of the Titan Submarine: Exploring the Kraken Mare effort will focus on advancing the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of the concept by (1) retiring risks found in the Phase I design, (2) gathering new Kraken Sea observations by Cassini, and (3) further defining science goals and instruments to fulfill them; each of these tasks will feed into two COMPASS design sessions. All of these products should ready the Titan Submarine (Titan Sub) concept to a confidence level that allow further NASA investment. The major risks found in the Phase I conceptual design center around vehicle operations in a liquid hydrocarbon sea. Basic physics questions of operating in this cryogen need to be answered. Cryogenic experts at the NASA Glenn Research Center will develop models to explore mixtures and pressures of cryogens and gases and how they would react with a warm submarine. Results from these models will be used to refine the ballast and propulsion system conceptual designs as well as feed into development of a hydrodynamic fluid models at the Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Laboratory for evaluating the conceptual design. Cassini continues to observe both the constituents (remotely) and the depth of the northern Titan Seas. Up-to-date data will be gathered and used as inputs for the modeling mentioned above. These data, along with the above analysis results, will be used to refine the science goals, concept of operations, and instrument suite for the Titan Sub. These activities will be led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The Phase II efforts will be strengthened by workshops at selected science and cryogenic conferences that will include scientists, cryogenic engineers (including the liquid natural gas industry) respectively, as well as NASA project planners to review the Titan Sub concept and add direction and experience to the challenges it faces. The results of both the above efforts will feed into a COMPASS current engineering design run to update the current Titan Sub conceptual design to mature the concept. Launch and delivery options will be explored (in Phase I funds were not sufficient to design more than the Sub itself) on how to deliver this long cylindrical submarine. Risks of an exposed phased-array antenna to communicate directly back to Earth will also be explored. A second COMPASS run will develop a Titan Sub that would be delivered as part of an orbiter system. The presence of an orbiter would greatly simplify several aspects of the submarine design, especially delivery and communications.
SCEPS in Space – Non-Radioisotope Power Systems for Sunless Solar System Exploration Missions
Pennsylvania State University
State College, PA
Stored Chemical Energy Power Systems (SCEPS) have been used in U.S. Navy torpedoes for decades. This high-energy-density, high-power technology can be reliably stored for years. In Phase I we analyzed the applicability of SCEPS to in situ solar system exploration, looking to see if it could be adapted to power a lander sent to a target with no usable sunlight as an energy source. We developed a candidate mission to the surface of Venus, showing that SCEPS could be used for powering spacecraft and landers. The team compared it to conventional battery and Plutonium powered systems, both of which have deficiencies that are overcome by SCEPS. Our concept holds the promise of a power solution that could far exceed the operational capacity of existing batteries, allowing exciting exploration to continue despite the lack of available Plutonium. We propose to continue the research into applying SCEPS to exploration missions that can’t be powered by sunlight. In this study we will mature the Venus mission studied in Phase I. We will also expand our understanding of the usefulness of SCEPS to exploration of moons, comets, asteroids and other targets where sunlight is not sufficient to power the mission. We will engage with the leaders in science planning for small bodies, outer planets, and robotic missions to our own Moon and make a determination of the first, most high-impact use of SCEPS in space. An experiment will be performed to determine SCEPS performance when using CO2 as an oxidizer, approximating the in situ resource utilization of the Venusian atmosphere. Venus science goals will be revisited to prepare the Venus concept for the next level of study. Two key risks stand out. The first is our ability to scale down the power from current SCEPS implementation to levels more in family with spacecraft. Landed systems on Mars, for example, have had power levels on the order of hundreds of watts, far less than the many thousands of kilowatts that SCEPS provides for a U.S. Navy torpedo. The work proposed here would lead to better understanding of SCEPS operations at power levels appropriate to space exploration. The second risk is combustion with in situ resources. In the case of the ALIVE mission, the atmospheric CO2 is proposed as the oxidizer. The analysis performed in Phase I indicates that the reaction would give of the necessary heat to power the lander. The use of in situ resources has its benefits: in the case of the ALIVE mission it reduces the mass of consumables that would otherwise have to be included on launch day by hundreds of kilograms. In Phase II we seek experimental confirmation that this reaction can be initiated and sustained at the power levels required for such a lander. We see an opportunity to expand our understanding of the impact that SCEPS could have on solar system exploration. The sunless environment of Venus may indeed be explored through the use of SCEPS, but many cold, sunless regions may also benefit. Sending a SCEPS system to power a lander on the surface of Europa or the lakes or dunes of Titan may return substantial science that would be otherwise left unknown, or at least greatly delayed as the community works to solve the Plutonium-availability problem. We will develop a multi-variable model for SCEPS function and performance using advanced trade space visualization and exploration tools and techniques. The trade space will include the information gleaned from the stakeholders. The trade space tools will allow us to see the intersection of SCEPS capability and mission utility. The collective results of the study will be used to create a roadmap for further maturation of SCEPS for use in space. In Phase II we seek to expand the understanding of how best to target this technology and plan a path for development by developing a roadmap for TRL advancement of SCEPS in space that mirrors NASA’s solar system science goals in this decade.
Trans-Formers for Lunar Extreme Environments: Ensuring Long-Term Operations in Regions of Darkness and Low Temperatures
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Imagine an oasis of warm sunlight surrounded by a desert of freezing cold darkness. Robots inside the oasis perform scientific lab analyses and process icy regolith brought from excavations in the neighboring darkness. This oasis, about the size of a football field, lies in a valley about twice the size of Washington DC, surrounded by peaks the size of Mount Rainier. From its low angle on the horizon, the sun’s rays never shine over the peaks into the valley, until heliostats unfold on these peaks and redirect the rays down to form the oasis of sunlight. This place becomes a large science laboratory and the largest off-Earth producer of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for fueling inter-planetary trips. This is the Shackleton crater at the lunar South Pole and TransFormers are the heliostats projecting sunlight onto the oasis. This is the vision we propose to bring to life. The TransFormer (TF) concept is a paradigm shift to operating in Extreme Environments (EE). TF are systems that direct energy into energy-depleted (extreme) environments, transforming them, locally, around robots or humans, into mild micro-environments. The robots would no longer need to cope with the cold darkness, covered by blankets and warmed by the heat of RTGs.The analysis determined that it is possible to power and keep warm an MSL-class exploration rover 10km away in the Shackleton crater (SC), and calculated the required TF size (40m diameter for a circular reflector). An unanticipated finding was the understanding that such a reflector could power not only a single rover, but hundreds of MSL-class rovers operating in a sunlit oasis (which receives in total over 1MW from the 40m diameter reflector). It could power and warm up small rovers or devices that cannot carry RTGs. This insight encouraged the team to propose for Phase II the more ambitious mission scenario described above, not only creating a micro-environment around a single exploration rover, but forming an entire “oasis” where equipment for in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) can also operate! The proposed mission scenario limits the illuminated area to the carefully selected oasis location, where the ISRU equipment operates and where the excavating robots operating nearby in the darkness come back to warm up and recharge. Another new concept in this proposal was triggered by an insight during the recent NIAC Workshop of a rover “chasing” sunlight around the South Pole. There is always at least one point on the crater rim that receives sunlight. Indeed, by looking at two appropriately selected points around SC, the collective illumination time increases from 86% to 94% (Bussey, 2010). As Wettergreen suggests, it appears possible to have continuous collective illumination over multiple points. The new idea is to place TFs at these points, at least one illuminated at all times even though others may have dimmed. This way, increasing the time of continuous illumination becomes possible (no need to “chase” the sunlight – just place TFs at key points along the way, and reflect it wherever needed). We will explore this idea, which for the first time points to the possibility to develop a Continuous Solar Power Infrastructure at the South Pole dispersed around SC, forming a true ‘ring of power’. The first objective is to advance the TF concept in the context of a lunar mission at Shackleton crater, to power, heat and illuminate robotic operations inside SC to prospect/excavate lunar volatiles in icy regolith, and to perform in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) of icy regolith in order to extract water, hydrogen, and oxygen. The second objective is to advance the feasibility of TFs by performing a point design of a scalable TF that packs in a cube of less than 1m on the side, weights 10–100 kg, unfolds to over 1,000 m2 of thin (0.1 to 1 mm) reflective surface with over 95% long-term reflectivity and is robust to dust obscuration.
Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (HERTS)
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
Our Electric Sail (E-sail) propulsion team is excited to propose to the 2015 NAIC Phase II solicitation. Our international team includes: the inventor and patent holder of the E-Sail propulsion system (Dr. Pekka Janhunen of the Finish Meteorological Institute (FMI), the Principal Investigator for NASA’s previous Tether Satellite System experiments that were flown on the Space Shuttle (Dr. Nobie Stone), fellow NASA NAIC former and present Fellow Dr. Rob Hoyt of Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI), and Utah State University team lead by Dr. Robert Schunk. Our proposal builds upon our teams technical findings in Phase 1 – “that an E-Sail propelled spacecraft can travel 100 AU in less than 10 years or to the Heliopause (120 – 150 AU) in < 15 years”. In addition to the Heliopause missions, our team member – Dr. Pekka Janhunen of the Finish Meteorological Institute (FMI) – has examined a number of missions of scientific discovery where the E-Sail propulsion system will provide rapid transits so various researchers could begin to get data back from outer planetary missions within 1 to 2 years of launch.