NIAC Projects Target Mars, Venus & Pluto

Pluto Hop, Skip, and Jump mission. (Credit: Benjamin Goldman)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

An airship for Mars, two spacecraft capable of exploring the hellish environment of Venus, and a fusion-powered orbiter and lander for Pluto are three of the planetary-related research projects recently funded by theNASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

In all, NIAC funded eight advanced projects focused on Mars, Venus and Pluto in its latest annual funding round. The space agency also funded two proposals aimed at identifying and extracting resources on planets, moons and asteroids.

MARS

Phase I
$125,000/9 Months

A key problem for human exploration and settlement on Mars is the existence of percholates in the soil. Adam Arkin of the University of California at Berkeley would use synthetic biology remove the toxins.

Synthetic Biology Architecture to Detoxify and Enrich Mars Soil for Agriculture (Credit: Adam Arkin)

“The advantages of our proposed architecture over current approaches, such as washing out perchlorate to cleanse soil or using hydroponics to grow plants, include a low initialization mass of microbial cells, on- demand cell growth with in situ resources, and the elimination of toxic wastewater.,” the proposals stagtes. “To accomplish our proposed concept architecture, we will investigate two strains of a diverse clade of organisms, Pseudomonas, which includes relevant extremophiles.”

John-Paul Clarke of the Georgia Institute of Technology was funded for a project to develop a vacuum airship to explore the Red Planet.

“This concept is similar to a standard balloon, whereas a balloon uses helium or hydrogen to displace air and provide lift, a vacuum airship uses a rigid structure to maintain a vacuum to displace air and provide lift,” the proposal states. “From an initial analysis of the vacuum airship structure and relationship to atmospheric conditions, Mars appears to have an atmosphere in which the operation of a vacuum airship would not only be possible, but beneficial over a conventional balloon or dirigible.”

Phobos L1 Operational Tether Experiment (Credit: Kevin Kempton)

A proposal by Kevin Kempton of the NASA Langley Research Center focuses on suspending a package of sensors above the martian moon Phobos using a tether.

“This mission concept is a synthesis of new technologies that would provide a unique platform for multiple sensors directed at Phobos as well as Mars,” the proposal states. “Since the Mars/Phobos L1 point is only ~3.1 km from the surface of Phobos, the PHLOTE tether length only needs to be a few kilometers long.”

IMSG Laboratories’ Jason Gruber is working on a “turbolift” that would help astronauts stay healthy in microgravity conditions during long-duration missions to Mars.

“Briefly, the conceptual paradigm is as follows: the astronaut is linearly accelerated at 1G for ~1s, then is rotated 180 degrees to prepare for a 1G deceleration for ~1s,” the proposal states. “This process is repeated to create intermittent AG where the force is always headward similar to standing here on Earth.

“The experience is likely to be analogous to bouncing mildly on a trampoline. The intermittent loading is intended to reduce or eliminate the physiological deconditioning in a comprehensive, multi-system manner,” the proposal adds.

VENUS

Phase II
$500,000/2 Years

A key obstacle to exploring Venus is the planet’s high temperatures, which reach 872 F (467 C) on the surface. (That’s hot enough to melt lead.) Soviet probes that have landed on the surface functioned for about two hours at most before their electrical systems fried.

NIAC funded two proposals from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory aimed at exploring this hellish planet.  Jonathan Sauder’s proposal is to develop a hybrid automaton rover that “combines steampunk with space exploration to enable science measurements unachievable with today’s space technology.”

Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (Credit: Jonathan Sauder)

An automaton is a mechanical device capable of performing a series of complex actions to achieve a specific result,” the proposal states. “They have long been explored as art forms but remain unexplored for space applications. The automaton rover is designed to reduce requirements on electronics while requiring minimal human interaction.”

“In Phase 1 purely mechanical rover technologies were compared to a high temperature electronics rover and a hybrid rover technologies,” the proposal adds. “A purely mechanical rover, while feasible, was found to not be practical and a high temperature electronics rover is not possible with the current technology, but a hybrid rover is extremely compelling.”

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.

PLUTO

Phase I
$125,000/9 Months

Phase II
$500,000/2 Years

Benjamin Goldman’s plan would send a 200 kg lander to Pluto that would be capable of investigating multiple sites on the distant dwarf planet.

Pluto Hop, Skip, and Jump mission. (Credit: Benjamin Goldman)

After making science measurements at its initial landing site, the lander switches to ‘hopper’ mode, taking advantage of the low gravitational acceleration (0.063 gee) and a modest propellant store to literally hop, skip, and jump around the surface, sometimes kilometers at a time, investigating features of interest,” the proposal states. “The proposed concept would enable in-situ surface science at Pluto with low overall mass, a reasonable cost, and in a timeframe of about 10-15 years.”

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.

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

“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.”

REMOTE SENSING

Phase II
$500,000/2 Years

Remote Laser Evaporative Molecular Absorption Spectroscopy Sensor System. (Credit: Gary Hughes)

Gary Hughes’s project would use a high-power laser to zap the surface of a planets, moons and asteroids. An infrared spectrometer aboard the spacecraft would analyze the composition of the resulting plume.

“All results obtained during Phase I indicate that the proposed sensor system concept is viable,” the proposal states. “We estimate the sensor system concept to be TRL-2 at the culmination of Phase I. The Phase II effort would potentially push the system concept from TRL-2 to TRL-4, by building a proof-of-concept laboratory model and running extensive experiments to test the theory developed in Phase I.”

Optical Mining of Asteroids, Moons, and Planets to Enable Sustainable Human Exploration and Space Industrialization (Credits: Joel Sercel)

Joel Sercel of TransAstra Corporation has proposed using sunlight to other planetary bodies.

“In Optical Mining, excavating and processing asteroid materials is accomplished by highly concentrated sunlight which we have shown can be used to drill holes, excavate, disrupt, and shape an asteroid while the asteroid is enclosed in a containment bag,” according to the proposal summary.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

  • Robert G. Oler

    it all starts with affordable launching and the Falcon Heavy is a good step in that direction…also we should rethink how we do these things. for instance a Pluto probe could consist of two falcon heavy launches…one is a propulsion stage perhaps a two stage that sends the probe on its way and then is responsible for the braking into orbit and the other launch is of the platform/science system…autodocking or assembly at the space station and then its gone…

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Proposing a mobile Pluro rover is kind of nuts in terms of cost. Simplier just to send multiple cheaper static landers instead.

    Of course. there have to be a more robust communication link than the pre-Intenet era transmission speed that the New Horizon probe processes.