NIAC Funds Advanced Propulsion Projects

Mach Effects for In Space Propulsion: Interstellar Mission. (Credit: Heidi Fearn)

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program recently funded six proposals focused on futuristic propulsion systems for missions to Pluto, Venus and other solar systems.

There were four Phase I proposals that are worth approximately $125,000 apiece over nine months. NIAC also funded two Phase II proposals that are worth $500,000 each for two-year investigations.

Phase I
$125,000/9 Months

Propulsion Architecture for Interstellar Precursor Missions

John Brophy of NASA JPL was funded for a project that would use a laser system to send a spacecraft into deep space.

Breakthrough Propulsion Architecture for Interstellar Precursor Missions (Credit: John Brophy)

“We propose a new power/propulsion architecture to enable missions such as a 12-yr flight time to 500 AU—the distance at which solar gravity lensing can be used to image exoplanets—with a conventional (i.e., New Horizons sized) spacecraft,” the proposal states.

“Our architecture accomplishes this by combining the following three innovations: 1. a 10-km diameter, 100-MW laser array that beams power across the solar system; 2. a 70% efficient photovoltaic array tuned to the laser frequency producing power at 12 kV; [and] 3. a 70-MW direct-drive, lithium (not xenon)-based ion propulsion system with a specific impulse of 58,000 s,” the proposal adds.

Mach Effects for In Space Propulsion: Interstellar Mission

Mach Effects for In Space Propulsion: Interstellar Mission. (Credit: Heidi Fearn)

Heidi Fearn of the Space Studies Institute wants to send spacecraft even further using an advanced propulsion system.

“Mach effects are transient variations in the rest masses of objects that simultaneously experience accelerations and internal energy changes,” the proposal states. “These effects have the revolutionary capability to produce thrust without the irreversible ejection of propellant, eliminating the need to carry propellant as required with most other propulsion systems.”

Gradient Field Imploding Liner Fusion Propulsion System

Gradient Field Imploding Liner Fusion Propulsion System. (Credit: Michael LaPointe)

Michael LaPointe of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center was funded to develop a fusion propulsion system.

“An innovative modification to magneto-inertial fusion is proposed in which the pulsed, high current magnetic field coil and stationary central fuel target are replaced with a fast moving fusion fuel target fired axially into a static, high gradient magnetic field,” according to the proposal. “As the target passes through the magnetic field gradient it effectively experiences a rapidly changing axial magnetic field, which induces strong azimuthal currents in the target liner to implode the fuel and reach fusion conditions.”

Continuous Electrode Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion

Continuous Electrode Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion (Credit: Raymond Sedwick)

Raymond Sedwick’splan would focus on refining Inertial Electrostatic Confinement (IEC) techniques for fusion propulsion.

The objectives of the proposed research are therefore two-fold: 1) To retire the broad fundamental criticisms of IEC devices by demonstrating feasible engineering solutions, and 2) To develop a comprehensive system-level performance model to support parametric scaling,” the proposal states.

Phase II
$500,000/2 Years

Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander (Credit: Stephanie Thomas)

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took about 9.5 years to conduct a flyby of Pluto. Stephanie Thomas wants to send an orbiter and lander to the planet in less than half the time.

“The Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) concept provides game-changing propulsion and power capabilities that would revolutionize interplanetary travel,” the proposal states. “DFD is based on the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC) fusion reactor under development at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

The mission context we are proposing is delivery of a Pluto orbiter with a lander. DFD provides high thrust to allow for reasonable transit times to Pluto while delivering substantial mass to orbit: 1000 kg delivered in 4 years.”

Venus Interior Probe Using In-situ Power and Propulsion (Credit: Ratnakumar Bugga)

Ratnakumar Bugga’s proposal involves a balloon that could be refueled in flight using gases in the Venusian atmosphere.

“The probe utilizes H2 and O2, harvested through electrolysis of sulfuric acid/water to supplement fuel carried from Earth, in order to supply a solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) for power generation at low altitudes, and to supplement H2 as a buoyancy gas for the ascent/descent of a balloon,” the proposal states.