Visionary Tech Concepts Could Pioneer the Future in Space

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA missions make it seem like the future is now – rovers exploring Mars with cutting-edge gadgets, a spacecraft venturing home with an asteroid sample, and a complex space telescope peering at the early universe. So, what’s the next big thing? What might space missions in 2050 and beyond set out to discover? 

One small NASA program aims to see what could be possible. The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, part of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, funds early-stage research into sci-fi sounding, futuristic technology concepts. The goal is to find what might work,  what might not, and what exciting new ideas researchers may come up with along the way

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Solar Sail Advancements Aim to Unlock Deep Space Exploration

Two new solar sail mission concepts will assess spacecraft communications and power requirements and explore the design of higher fidelity sail control systems to ensure precise navigation around the Sun and interstellar locations. (Credit: Aerospace Corporation)

New concepts could expand human exploration of the deepest parts of the solar system faster than ever before.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (Aerospace Corporation PR) — Space exploration remains a herculean effort due to the immense challenges imposed by time and distance. While missions to near-Earth objects have been successfully accomplished using traditional means of propulsion, the outermost planets in our solar system are 2 to 3.7 billion miles from the Sun. Reaching them within any reasonable time frame requires propulsion systems that exceed the capabilities of conventional propulsion methods.

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NASA Space Technology Budget Request Fact Sheet

NASA’s Psyche mission to a distant metal asteroid will carry a revolutionary Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) package. This artist’s concept shows Psyche spacecraft with a five-panel array. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin)

NASA FACT SHEET
FY 2022 Budget Request
Space Technology
($ Millions)

The Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) develops transformative, cross-cutting technologies that lead to research and technology breakthroughs to enable NASA’s missions and is broadening its focus on cross-cutting space technologies that will support creating good jobs in a growing space industry.

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NASA Funds Research into a CubeSat Space Flight Test of a Neutrino Detector

Credit: Nickolas Solomey

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts 2021 Phase III Award
Amount: $2 million

Nickolas Solomey
Wichita State University
Wichita, Kan.

This is a proposal for the development of a Neutrino Detector for a Spacecraft that has a science mission to fly close to the Sun and study the nuclear furnace core and search for and study the neutrino gravitational lens at 20 to 50 AU of the 2nd brightest neutrino source in the sky – the galactic core – and along the way, search for direct interaction of dark matter. The neutrino intensity can dramatically change as the distance from the Sun squared and the solar neutrino flux (a background to dark matter) can be dramatically decreased going away from the Sun.

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NASA Funds Research into Landing Spacecraft on Pluto

Credit: Kerry Nock

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Phase II Award
Amount: $500,000

Kerry Nock
Global Aerospace Corporation
Irwindale, Calif.

If low approach velocities are desired for orbiters or landers, ballistic flight times to Pluto and other similar distant Kuiper Belt Object-like targets like Triton can be very long – a generation. Even so, the New Horizons (NH) flyby took nearly 10 years to reach Pluto with the help of a Jupiter gravity assist and still the approach velocity was about 14 km/s.

How can one land on or orbit Pluto in a reasonable mission time without many hundreds of millions of dollars in nuclear power sources for low-thrust propulsion, or an exotic propulsion system that could take decades and many millions of dollars to develop, or a next generation launch vehicle and a massive chemical propulsion system? Also, can a Pluto mission be accomplished under the aegis of a NASA New Frontiers Program?

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NASA Funds Research into Flying Environmental Sensors for Venus Exploration

Credit; Jeffrey Balcerski

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts 2021 Phase II Award
Amount: $500,000

Jeffrey Balcerski
Ohio Aerospace Institute
Cleveland, Ohio

The LEAVES (Lofted Environmental and Atmospheric VEnus Sensors) architecture is a “swarm” approach to obtaining key, in situ, Venus atmospheric data for exceptionally low cost and risk. This is made possible by an ultra-lightweight, passively-lofted, inexpensive atmospheric sensor package that can be deployed directly from orbit without an aeroshell and is sensitive enough to yield valuable new, transformative information on planetary atmospheres.

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NASA Funds Breakthrough Research into Extreme Solar Sailing for Interstellar Missions

Credit: Artur Davoyan

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts 2021 Phase II Award
Amount: $500,000

Artur Davoyan
University of California, Los Angeles

As of date, deep space exploration has been hindered by the limitations of existing propulsion technologies. In contrast, solar sails appear to allow a low cost pathway to high speed and ubiquitous exploration of the outer solar system and interstellar space. By performing a slingshot maneuver in the vicinity of the sun, just ~2-5 solar radii distant from the sun, solar sails can propel light-weight CubeSat class spacecraft to near-relativistic speeds, >0.1% of the speed of light (>300 km/s or >60AU/year characteristic velocities). Such a technology would markedly transform space exploration, enabling fast missions to distant worlds, effectively turning our sun into a launch pad.

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NASA Funds Research on Lunar Crater Radio Telescope on Moon’s Far Side

Credit: Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts 2021 Phase II Award
Amount: $500,000

Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, Calif.

An ultra-long-wavelength radio telescope on the far side of the Moon has significant advantages compared to Earth-based and Earthorbiting telescopes, including

(1) Conducting observations of the Universe at wavelengths longer than 10 meters (i.e., frequencies below 30 MHz), wavelengths at which critical cosmological or extrasolar planetary signatures are predicted to appear, yet cannot be observed from the ground due to absorption from the Earth’s ionosphere; and

(2) The Moon acts as a physical shield that isolates a far-side lunar-surface telescope from radio interference from sources on the Earth’s surface, the ionosphere, Earth-orbiting satellites, and the Sun’s radio emission during the lunar night. We propose the design of a Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT) on the far side of the Moon.

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NASA Funds Research into Breakthrough Space Telescope for Prospecting Asteroids

Credit: Peter Gural

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts 2021 Phase II Award
Amount: $500,000

Peter Gural
Trans Astronautica Corporation
Lakeview Terrace, Calif.

There are 3 key reasons why it is vital for NASA to develop better ways to locate and characterize Near Earth Objects (NEOs).

1: NEOs are an impact hazard to the Earth.

2: Measuring NEO population distributions will unlock the answers to critical questions dealing with the formation and evolution of the solar system.

3: Most importantly, low ∆V NEOs can be targets for human exploration and resource mining.

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NASA Funds Research into Using Fungi to Grow Off-planet Structures

Credit: Lynn Rothschild

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts 2021 Phase II Award
Amount: $500,000

Lynn Rothschild
NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, Calif.

A turtle carries its own habitat. While reliable, it costs energy in transporting mass. NASA makes the same trade-off when it transports habitats and other structures needed for human and other applications on lunar and planetary surfaces “on the back” of its missions. During Phase 1, we identified a novel biology-based solution to in situ production of usable components for space exploration: using fungal mycelial composites to grow structures off-planet, from habitats to furniture.

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NASA Selects Innovative, Early-Stage Tech Concepts for Continued Study

Notional view of LCRT on the far-side of the Moon. (Credits: Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA encourages researchers to develop and study unexpected approaches for traveling through, understanding, and exploring space. To further these goals, the agency has selected seven studies for additional funding – totaling $5 million – from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The researchers previously received at least one NIAC award related to their proposals.

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Exploring the Moon Using Beamed Light Energy

Artist concept of Light Bender. (Credits: Ronald Neale)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award
Funding: up to $125,000
Study Period: 9 months

Light Bender
Charles Taylor
NASA Langley Research Center
Hampton, Va.

Synopsis

Light Bender is a novel concept for the generation and distribution of power on the lunar surface within the context of the Artemis mission and the “Long-Term Human Lunar Surface Presence” that will follow. The innovative concept is based on a heliostat that utilizes Cassegrain telescope optics as the primary means to capture, concentrate and focus the sun’s light.

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PEDALS: A Better Method for Determining the Composition of Subsurface Lunar Regolith

PEDALS is delivered to or near the surface by a lander or orbiter, can survive moderate impacts if needed (to be traded), unrolls passively using shape memory materials on the surface, and later, probes the subsurface by combining and coupling unique permutations of short-length dipoles. (Credits: Patrick McGarey)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award
Funding: up to $125,000
Study Period: 9 months

PEDALS: Passively Expanding Dipole Array for Lunar Sounding
Patrick McGarey
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, Calif.

Knowledge of the subsurface composition and structure of terrestrial planets is key to unveiling their geologic history, including crustal differentiation, volcanism, sedimentation, basin formation, and volatile transport and accumulation.

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Building Lunar Landing Pads Using Regolith

Graphic depiction of Regolith Adaptive Modification System (RAMs) (Credits: Sarbajit Banerjee)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award
Funding: up to $125,000
Study Period: 9 months

Regolith Adaptive Modification System (RAMs) to Support Early Extraterrestrial Planetary Landings (and Operations)
Sarbajit Banerjee
Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station
College Station, Texas

The “Regolith Adaptive Modification system (RAMs)” was conceived for selective reinforcement and fusing of native Lunar surface materials. The current concept was evolved from a previous NASA NIAC proposal focused on flexible lightweight landing platforms.

Much of the current Lunar regolith modification research is focused on using technologies that require significant presence and infrastructure for success, such as sintering and geo-polymerization. In contrast, the RAMs system is uniquely suited for supporting deployment during early landings, but can also be used for more mature construction activities after establishment of Lunar and Martian settlements.

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How to Explore Uranus Using CubeSats & Beamed Laser Power

Illustration of mothership and probe subsystems in the SCATTER concept. (Credits: Sigrid Close)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award
Funding: up to $125,000
Study Period: 9 months

Exploring Uranus through SCATTER
Sigrid Close
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

SCATTER studies the capability for a parent spacecraft to transmit power and remotely manipulate a small probe spacecraft through a laser transmitter, entitled Sustained CubeSat Activity Through Transmitted Electromagnetic Radiation (SCATTER).

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